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Farm Bill inaction risky, Vilsack says

DANIEL LOOKER 09/14/2012 @ 3:59pm Business Editor

The House could pass a farm bill in 24 hours if its leadership wanted to, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday.

The House plans only eight working days this month before members head home to campaign for re-election, but Vilsack said there is still time to get a bill passed before the current law expires on September 30. 

"I don't know why they don't work nine days, 10 days, 12 days or up to midnight September 30," he said.

Vilsack also said he thinks the bill would pass. That when a bill that affects rural and farm voters is actually placed before members of Congress, "very rarely would they say no," he said.

Spending on nutrition programs is considered an obstacle to House passage of the bill, with many Democrats opposing the $16 billion that would be cut over the next 10 years and with some Republicans on the ag committee wanting to double those cuts. And the Senate's already-passed farm bill trims $4 billion. "Clearly it's a difference that could be worked out in a conference committee," Vilsack said.

The conference committee made up of leaders of ag committees from both the House and Senate likely would not meet after the farm law expires, former Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said earlier this week, and the job of putting a final bill together would probably take place after the November elections.

Many parts of the farm bill would continue for a while after the law expires at the end of this month, but Vilsack outlined several programs that would stop immediately:

--support for dairy farms, which are being hit hard by rising feed prices caused by the drought. 

--signup for the conservation reserve program would be in limbo, although spending for major conservation programs, including EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) would continue.

--the Market Access Program, which helps finance export promotion, would stop. Other competitors like Canada and Australia won't suspend their promotion, Vilsack said. "You know how difficult it would be to get that market share back," Vilsack told state agriculture officials.

--due to lack of certainty about next year's farm programs, some farmers, especially beginning farmers, may have trouble getting financing for next year

Vilsack praised a bipartisan effort to petition the House leadership to hold a vote on the farm bill and said he will work until September 30 to get a bill passed. 

"This isn't a time to play Russian roulette with the rural economy," he told Agriculture.com later during a press conference.

The discharge petition filed by Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA), had more than 50 signatures on Friday. He needs 218 before the House adjourns next week to force the vote.

“We are gaining support from Democrats and Republicans who all see the need for the Farm Bill to be passed before September 30th,” said Braley. “This is a bipartisan effort that desperately needs to happen…"

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