USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday he is certain lawmakers understand the importance of completing a farm bill soon, noting that the USDA is working to ensure that any wrinkles in the potential law will be ironed out ahead of its passage.
"It's pretty clear the expectations that we have at USDA and I think around the countryside and that's that Congress gets its work done in the month of January," Vilsack said in an interview with Farm Progress. "Whether that's in the middle part of January or the latter part of January I think that's still unclear – but it's clear to me that Congress is getting the message that the time is now for the farm bill."
With the October, 2013, expiration of the bill, several USDA programs were left in the lurch. And despite the hazy timeline for potential 2014 passage, Vilsack says the pressure of dairy price supports brought on by permanent law and trade issues should be enough to get the ball rolling.
"We don't want permanent law implemented and we certainly want to satisfy Brazilian trade issues," Vilsack said, noting that there are "a lot of reasons to get this done."
USDA has been keeping its finger on the pulse of the negotiations, Vilsack said, mostly due to its potential new requirements.
"Obviously we want to be in position … once the President signs the farm bill to be able to begin the process of implementation as quickly as possible," Vilsack said. "We want to do it right, and we want to do it correctly. But we also recognize that producers across the country will be interested in us getting our job done as quickly as possible."
Vilsack said part of that is formulating rules that will need to be changed if a farm bill is passed and prioritizing those rules in each title of the bill, and within USDA itself.
As for the permanent law, USDA will be forced to implement its requirements if a new bill isn't passed. But Vilsack says trying to enforce the rule is counterintuitive at this point.
"If we see progress if we see a conference report that's issued by the conference committee, if we see action on the floor of the House or the Senate – which both leaders of the House and Senate have indicated is likely – then there isn't really a reason for us to spend a great deal of time focusing on implementation of permanent law," he said.
However, if there is a breakdown in negotiations and the bill falls flat, USDA will begin enforcing permanent law.
"We're going to monitor the situation. Right now our focus is on getting this farm bill through the process and being prepared as well prepared as we possibly can for implementing it," he noted.
While key negotiators have been quiet on the closed-door process, there have been suggestions that both food stamps and commodity programs have been hurdles to a final deal. Most recently, talk of renewing expired unemployment benefits using 10-year savings from the farm bill have surfaced. That, however, has yet to yield any serious consideration.
"In the House there is indication that they are interested in having an offset but they haven't indicated or suggested that the farm bill be that offset," Vilsack commented.
"I'm not really focused on that," Vilsack added, affirming USDA's aforementioned priorities in preparedness.