WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged that cotton growers need help, but reaffirmed his position that the department is currently prohibited from designating cottonseed as an oilseed, which would allow growers to receive farm program payments.
In an appearance today before the House Agriculture Committee, he also said that the omnibus spending bill Congress passed late last year specifically prohibits the use of Commodity Credit Corporation funds being used for disaster assistance to help cotton growers, but left the door wide open for a program to provide cost-share assistance for cotton ginners.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Vilsack insisted, “It’s not about cottonseed, it’s about providing help to cotton growers. That’s why they want to have cottonseed included (under the farm bill) because it will result in (Agriculture Risk Coverage) and (Price Loss Coverage) payments.”
But as he had told the committee, “Honestly, in good faith, I don’t think I can do that.” He explained his position to the committee and in an op-ed published on the web today.
“The reality is that Congress made a decision not to specifically include cottonseed in a list of other oilseeds” in the 2014 farm bill, he said.
House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, respectfully disagreed.
“Congress never considered the question of whether to include or exclude cottonseed as part of ARC or PLC,” he said in his opening statement. “Instead, we left that decision to you. Therefore, were you to honor the bipartisan, bicameral request of more than 100 members of Congress, and designate cottonseed as an oilseed, you would not be contradicting the law and you would have our full backing.”
Vilsack said after the hearing that he planned to “go back and tell my team to get working on a ginning cost-share measure.” He had told the committee members that his understanding was that the industry was not interested in that type of program.
A spokesperson for the National Cotton Council said the group did not have any immediate comment on Vilsack’s plan.
On another subject, Vilsack told reporters after the hearing that if Congress doesn’t act on a national standard for labeling of GMO foods, he would.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, has introduced a bill that would make GMO labeling voluntary and pre-empt state standards. The impetus is a Vermont law requiring labeling that is scheduled to go into effect July 1. Roberts and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. continue to work towards a compromise ahead of a now-delayed markup in the Senate Ag Committee.
“I really appreciate chairman Roberts bringing this matter to a head quickly,” Vilsack said. “I think he recognizes and Sen. Stabenow recognizes that this is a matter that needs to be resolved before the Vermont law goes into effect. If there are two people who can reach consensus on a very sticky, tough issue, it’s those two members. If it’s crafted right, I think there will be strong bipartisan support.”
The secretary praised the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s SmartLabel program, which would allow consumers to scan a barcode to get information about packaged foods.
“Candidly, from my perspective, setting up a SmartLabel and a 1-800 number (to get information) makes a lot of sense, because this is not the last time we’re going to have this conversation,” he said. “There are going to be other issues . . . that will crop up, and it will be necessary to have the flexibility in whatever system you set up to adjust to whatever the new reality is.”
At the hearing, Vilsack also implored the committee members to fix the fire budget within the Forest Service, which spent 62 percent of its budget last year on fire suppression.
“We are not a fire department,” he said. “We are a Forest Service.”
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