USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack appealed to the Senate Ag Committee not to pigeonhole him in the next farm bill in using scarce dollars for nutrition and other programs. No one in D.C. doubts the job and other benefits of USDA programs that promote locally grown food. Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D_Mich., Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and even Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., acknowledged them. But Roberts cautioned against pitting produce sold locally against that sold elsewhere, and taking 27 USDA programs to do it.
"The department recently released a report highlighting 27 programs geared toward the local foods sector," Roberts said. "This is somewhat concerning given our budget situation and coupled with our mission to reduce waste, duplication, and redundancy."
Roberts called for program consolidation and a tougher crackdown on $3.4-billion in food stamp waste, fraud and abuse.
Secretary Vilsack countered that's the lowest error and fraud rate in the history of the program, most of whose beneficiaries he argued play by the rules. But Nebraska Senator and Former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns asked Vilsack what he'd do when funding authority disappears for many programs at the end of the fiscal year.
"The key here is for you all to give us the flexibility to be creative; not to pigeonhole us in specific program requirements that make if very difficult for us to be collaborative," Vilsack said. "Allow us to focus on regional opportunities not just specific communities or specific business opportunities."
Vilsack argues regional strategies will give USDA a better shot at extending the reach of scarce farm bill dollars.
Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Ambassador Ron Kirk pressed Senate Finance Committee to end Cold War Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions with Moscow that will limit U.S. trade opportunities with Russia when it accedes to the WTO, possibly this year. Kirk say doing so would provide our farmers and ranchers with the benefits of the tariff cuts but also would have the ability to hold Russia accountable.
But Republicans, including Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ranking Member Orin Hatch, R-Utah, were more interested in getting Kirk and President Obama to request from Congress renewed fast track trade deal authority and refrain from creating what they see as an unnecessary new trade enforcement office in USTR.