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Vilsack, Lucas share policy visions

DANIEL LOOKER 03/04/2011 @ 11:30am Business Editor

Two of the most powerful agricultural leaders in Washington, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) spoke to the Commodity Classic in Tampa, Florida, Friday, with some agreement on issues facing farmers and, perhaps, key omissions.

Lucas said that after 17 years on the House Agriculture Committee and just two months as chairman, he feels like the farm dog that always chased cars and finally caught one. “I’m moving down the road at 60 miles an hour and I’m firmly hooked to that bumper,” he joked.

His committee is already starting to hold hearings on the EPA’s unpopular rules on dust and spray drift and next summer it will begin holding hearings to evaluate the effectiveness of USDA programs, he said. He also plans to hold more field hearings on the next farm bill, which began under his predecessor, former chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN).

His biggest challenge may be the farm bill.

“This next one is shaping up to be quite a doozy,” Lucas said.

The federal deficit and efforts to shrink it are the main reason.  

Lucas said that 38 farm programs will expire by 2012 with no spending baseline, which has the effect of requiring new federal funds to keep them going.

“To just do what we have been doing in the past I’d have to have seven or eight billion dollars but it’s not going to be there,” he said.

Another change that makes his job challenging is that more than half of the ag committee’s members, 23 from both parties, are new. They have no experience in writing a farm bill, he said.

Lucas said one thing that Congress could do that would help agriculture immediately would be to pass pending free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama.

“In one swoop we can open up more than $3 billion” in new markets he said.

“Without swift action our trade competitors around the world will move to take up our space,” Lucas said.

Trade is an area where Lucas and Vilsack seem to agree, although not on the timing.

Vilsack said Friday that within a few weeks the Obama Administration will submit the agreement with Korea to Congress for its approval.

After his speech, Agriculture.com asked at a press conference why the Administration plans to submit only the Korean agreement first.

Negotiations on changes to the other two aren’t finished, Vilsack said.

If Congress passes the Korean agreement, “it provides the impetus to get those agreements done,” Vilsack said.

And, although he expects that Congress will approve the agreement with Korea, if it doesn’t, “you can assume there would be problems with those other agreements.”

A subject that Lucas left out – energy policy – gave Vilsack some of his best applause lines in his speech to farmers at the Commodity Classic.

Vilsack defended the Administration’s efforts to expand the use of ethanol and other biofuels, which the House attempted to slow down with amendments to its 2011 spending bill passed last month but not approved in the temporary spending bill approved last week. Amendments adopted by the House would prevent EPA from finishing rules and labeling requirements for E15 and would stop USDA from spending money on blender pumps for ethanol.

“I’m here to suggest today that those who seek to slow the process down…do not understand the power of this idea,” Vilsack said. The most important thing about developing more biofuels is national security, he said.

With the nation importing 60% of its oil, sometimes from unstable regions of the world where the U.S. isn’t liked, “it makes far more sense to me to continue to provide opportunities for investment in the United States,” Vilsack said.

When the nation reaches the goal of using 36 million gallons of ethanol and other biofuels by 2022, that added investment will create another 1 mllion new jobs, he said.

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