WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2015 – USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack spent four hours with the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday talking about the state of the rural economy and answering members’ questions about a wide range of issues – ranging from the EPA’s controversial Waters of the U.S. proposal to country-of-origin labeling to nutrition programs for the poor.

Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, opened the hearing by thanking Vilsack for his “hard work” in implementing the 2014 farm bill but quickly added that he was “disappointed” with the White House plan to cut $16 billion from crop insurance spending over a decade. 

“With commodity markets plummeting and producers struggling to find financing, now is precisely the wrong time to weaken crop insurance,” Conaway said.

While Vilsack agreed that the public-private partnership that handles crop insurance should continue, he said the insurers have made healthy profits in the past – as much as 18 percent in 2012 -- and the cuts would be appropriate. Conaway countered that if the business was so profitable, we would see companies trying to enter the market. “What we see is people trying to get out,” he said.

The chairman also used a closing statement to express disapproval of reports he’s seen that indicated that a committee charged with coming up with new dietary guidelines for Americans would recommend less red meat in the diet. Vilsack said the reports would better be described as “rumors,” and tried to reassure the lawmakers that no decisions had been made. He said he’d be “surprised” if the guidelines, when finally released, would be “fundamentally different” than the current guidelines.

Here’s a look at some of the other issues raised during the hearing:

Waters of the U.S.: Many of the lawmakers called attention to the EPA’s controversial proposal to redefine which bodies of water in the U.S. come under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, calling it onerous and a massive overreach by the federal government. Several committee members asked Vilsack to add his voice to that of most of the U.S. farming community and stand against the proposal. In a diplomatic response, Vilsack said USDA would continue to bring the concerns of farmers and ranchers to the EPA’s attention, but noted that he has to maintain a relationship with other cabinet departments, one that allows him to offer his input on a number of rules, not just one.

Country of Origin Labeling: Vilsack said there was little USDA could do to fix the rule if the World Trade Organization eventually rules that the regulations – requiring meat to be labeled with where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered – are unfair, giving Canada and Mexico the go-ahead to impose retaliatory tariffs. He said it would be up to Congress to rescind the law, or modify its wording, and suggested Congress might consider a “more generic North American” label.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: During the hearing,Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Wash., called on Vilsack to “draw a line in the sand” against any further cuts to SNAP and efforts to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”  While Vilsack said he believes nutrition programs such as SNAP are important for Americans living near the poverty line, he said drawing the line McGovern called for would be up to the president.

The West Coast Port Dispute: At least a half-dozen lawmakers brought up the labor dispute involving 29 West Coast ports and called on Vilsack and the Obama administration to take a more active role in finding a settlement. Millions of dollars of perishable agricultural goods are rotting in containers at the ports while the dispute continues, they said. Vilsack said that USDA has reached out to both sides to reach a settlement, but several significant issues, which he did not mention, remain unresolved.

Trans-Pacific Partnership: Vilsack stressed the importance to agriculture of completing the TPP, a free-trade agreement among a dozen Pacific Rim nations, but he offered sharp criticism of Canada, which has been reluctant to reduce tariffs on dairy products. He said he didn’t know if Canada’s unwillingness to make concessions is related to domestic politics, or to concerns that the U.S. will eventually fail to approve a pact. “Whatever it is, they have been far less willing to negotiate than the Japanese."

Re-opening the farm bill: Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the committee’s ranking member, called attempts to reopen the farm bill “a very bad idea,” adding that it could jeopardize “everything we worked for.” He said he hopes the Agriculture Committee will remain united in opposition to additional cuts in farm bill programs. “Quite frankly,” he said, “the Agriculture Committee has done our work.”


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