USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack Thursday echoed previous statements regarding the impact of the farm bill on rural America, this time unveiling a White House Rural Council report to back up his call for a bill by the end of the year.
Vilsack released the report during a press call, addressing key farm bill issues framing the policy discussion, and a tight timeline that is keeping the pressure on lawmakers to make things work.
Vilsack again reiterated a push for farmer and rancher certainty that the bill could provide, but also said one of the most pressing reasons for a new bill is that another extension of the 2008 farm bill could burden budget negotiations.
"With an extension there come costs," Vilsack said," and you don't get reforms that this bill being considered by the conference committee will provide."
Vilsack touted benefits of the bill – more rural jobs, enhanced economic growth for agriculture, food assistance protection, federal conservation priorities, stronger international market access, additional focus on research and overall deficit reduction.
In highlighting the economic benefits, Vilsack explained that savings are important to congress, given that extensions cost additional resources, too, that are difficult to quantify.
"The key here is to focus on getting the job done and understanding that there is a consequence if the job doesn't get done – and that consequence is that at some point in time, USDA will be responsible under the law to follow the law and begin instituting the policies of the 1940s.
"No one wants to do that," he added.
The secretary also addressed figures that point to a relationship between the economic health of the nation and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – largely regarded as a key hurdle in farm bill negotiations.
"We're seeing reports that have been issued where the costs of the report are coming down," Vilsack said, presumably referencing a Nov. 20 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that found SNAP costs are leveling in correlation with recession recovery.
And, Vilsack said, underscoring his priorities on the issue, legislators should note that 92% of Americans on food stamps are elderly, people with disabilities, working adults or children. The other 8% are already subject to work requirements, though the requirements can be waived in times of economic hardship.
The work requirements, expected to be a bargaining chip for House representatives on the conference committee, have gotten a hard look from stakeholders in the food stamp/farm bill discussion. Vilsack, and the White House report, support maintaining a SNAP support, though Vilsack was quick to point out that some reform could be necessary.
"I think there are ways in which the program can be more efficient," Vilsack said. "I think there are ways in which we can encourage states to do a better job of creating and educating folks about work opportunities."
As far as a timeline, it's been rumored that a deal could come as quickly as the end of this week. There has also been speculation that this could be a make-or-break-it time for Congress, as they head out on Nov. 22 for a Thanksgiving recess, to return to Capitol Hill only for a short time in December before Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Though the timing is tight, Vilsack remained confident that progress was being made, even as nutrition assistance keeps things dodgy.
"I suspect that progress has been made and will continue to be made on the almost 90 differences that exist between the House and the Senate version," Vilsack said. "My suspicion is that the SNAP issue is one of the issues that will be last addressed."
Check back for more on the Rural Council report, found in its entirety here.