Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said yesterday that he would not ask U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to retreat from the Waters of the United States proposed rule, though he recognizes that farmers have concerns over the proposal.
"It’s not our decision to make — it’s our sister agency, and we have to respect that," Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee at a hearing to discuss the state of the rural economy. In the secretary’s first committee appearance of the 114th Congress, lawmakers had the opportunity to ask him about any aspect of agricultural policy.
Nevertheless, lawmakers pressed Vilsack to take a stand against the rule, which would expand the number of streams and waterways that receive automatic protection under the Clean Water Act.
"If I were in your position, I would take a tough stance advocating," said Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), who is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment.
Agriculture trade groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation have come out strongly against the rule, saying it would expose farmers to costly fines and permits despite the agricultural exemptions under the Clean Water Act.
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) also asked Vilsack to take a stand on the waters rule.
Indiana farmers "don’t feel like they’re being heard by this administration," she said.
Vilsack said he has used his role to discuss the concerns with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. But he refused to press further on the agency.
"It’s sort of like asking [the House] to make sure the Senate does what it should do; you can’t dictate the Senate, can you? You try, maybe," Vilsack told Walorski.
Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) pushed harder still.
"If there has been a call by others to pull the rule, and you have some concerns that you’ve even expressed, why wouldn’t you or your agency request that EPA actually pull the rule?" he asked, noting the U.S. Small Business Administration’s opposition to the proposed regulation.
Vilsack answered that going against an agency that works closely with USDA is not his "style."
"I wake up every morning, I say my prayers and I’m thankful that I’m not the EPA administrator," he said. "I am concerned about making sure that I have a relationship so that I am in a position to have an impact on not just one rule, but on all of the rules."
Outside of the contentious Clean Water Act rule, lawmakers also posed questions on conservation issues within USDA’s purview. Vilsack confirmed that there will be a general sign-up for the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to set aside highly erodible land for wildlife habitat, water protection and other environmental benefits.
The 2014 farm bill lowered the cap for CRP land from 32 million acres to 24 million acres, a concern to Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.). CRP lands are especially important for birds, which nest in grasslands and wetlands.
In order to do more with less, USDA is looking to use CRP acres "in a creative way," said Vilsack. This includes incorporating the land in the popular Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a new initiative that links the department with conservation organizations and local governments to improve lands on a larger, regional scale.
"I think there’s an opportunity to leverage, potentially get more acres involved in conservation, maybe not specifically in CRP, but leverage those resources more effectively," Vilsack said later, in response to similar concerns from Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.).
Vilsack added that he wants to see more coordination between the Farm Service Agency, which administers the CRP, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversees the RCPP.
More than one year after the passage of the farm bill, legislators continue to have questions about USDA’s safety nets and commitment to crop insurance.
Lawmakers criticized the Obama administration’s proposed cuts to crop insurance in the fiscal 2016 budget, which would shift more of the cost of premiums from the government to the landowner. The proposed changes would save about $14.6 billion over 10 years, according to the administration (E&E Daily, Feb. 9).
"We’ve have crop insurance, reinsurance folks come to us saying they’re exiting the business," said Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway (R-Texas).
Vilsack responded that the insurance industry would continue to see generous profits and that the claim that insurance companies are losing business "isn’t quite accurate."
"This is a healthy industry, and we’re seeing an expansion in a number of insurance policies," he said.