Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack faced tough questioning late last week from Republican members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee regarding USDA’s 2015 budget request. Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, a Republican from Alabama began by saying the proposed budget at first glance, would “appear to be modest and straight forward.
Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R – Alabama: “It is 228 million below the 2014 FY level. However there are several new programs and significant increases in funding for others. Some of these increases are offset by questionable decreases, such as the closing of 250 farm service agency offices and the reduction of 815 staff years without any real background as to how you arrive at the savings.”
Rep Harold Rodgers, R-Kentucky: “While mandatory comprises about 86% of your department’ s request, only 14 percent is what we actually sit down and try to decide how to be spent. The rest is on automatic pilot and that’s no way for a government to be operated.”
Rep David Valadao, R-California: “The overall budget for rural development has been harder hit than other areas in your budget. If we enacted you’re proposal far fewer communities, families and businesses would be helped.”
The most heated exchange came between Vilsack and Republican Congressman Tom Latham of Iowa. Latham confronted Vilsack with a list of Obama Administration proposals ranging from new labor guidelines for children of farm families to reduction in ethanol mandates. Latham claimed recent USDA decisions have left producers from his state wondering if the agency is still an advocate for farmers.
Rep Tom Latham, R-Iowa: “I don’t know if you have any response but it is very discouraging to me."
Sec. Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture: “Well congressman I am surprised by your comments, and I do want to respond because they do merit a response. With reference to the Department of Labor this department suggested it was not the appropriate approach and that we basically suggested it was an opportunity to better educate folks about public safety and farm safety generally. And we worked with the Labor Department to get that rule pulled and to create an alternative approach.”
Rep Tom Latham, R-Iowa: “Wasn’t your first response.”
Sec. Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture: “Yes it was…”
Rep Tom Latham, R-Iowa: “A tweet in support…”
Sec. Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture: “Yes it was! Yes it was! No, no, no our first response congressman was to suggest there was a better way to do this and we worked with the department to find a better way. As it relates to Meatless Monday, I was very critical of that effort and immediately so. It was pulled immediately. It wasn’t something that I sanctioned and I would point out that livestock experts are at record levels under this administration. The dust rule doesn’t exist and you know it. As far as the RFS is concerned, what we are focused on is that there are continued opportunities to expand export of ethanol and continued capacity to have higher blends. In fact I have spoken directly to Governor Branstad in our home state about a joint effort to encourage more E85 tanks. I find it interesting congress made it more difficult for us to do that when you essentially restricted us from using REAP funds for blender pumps. But we’ll continue to help expand opportunities for higher blends. So, I’m happy to visit with those farmers who have expressed disappointment to you. That’s not what I hear. So obviously we must be talking to different group.“
Rep Tom Latham, R-Iowa: “I think we're talking to the same people.”
Sec. Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture: “I don’t think we are congressman… With all do respect, I don’t think we are.”
Rep Tom Latham, R-Iowa: “I know what I know and it is very disheartening to see the change in relationship. There is an absolute felling out in the country the department sides more with EPA, it takes orders from above and is not advocating for farmers.”
Sec. Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture: “That’s just not true! That’s just not true!”
And in response to repeated questions regarding USDA’s proposed budget, Secretary Vilsack pointed out there are no easy choices to be made.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture: “ So, if you now don’t want have a cap, fine. If you want to look at other aspects of the budget, if you want to reduce fire suppression and put 45 million homes at greater risk, okay. If you want to reduce WIC and the 8.7 million women and infant children that benefit from that program, fine. But the realities of our budget are that there are difficult choices to make.”