(From Jim Wiesemeyer's Inside Washington Today.)
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, contacts advise, will soon brief President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on the depth and impact of the ongoing U.S. drought gripping much of the nation.
The drought has hit the major media with lead-off news items now a staple of nightly news programs.
Vilsack, with likely assistance from key staffers at the Agriculture Department, will details the scope of the drought and its potential impact on farmers, ranchers, food prices and other aspects.
Earlier this week USDA announced that Undersecretary Michael Scuse would visit rural communities across the country to show support to farmers and ranchers affected by a string of extreme weather in 2012. The visits include a tour of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana — three states USDA said were affected by severe frost and freezes in the spring, with Indiana now experiencing increasing levels of drought. In the weeks ahead, additional USDA subcabinet leaders will travel to Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and others to augment ongoing assistance from state-level USDA staff. USDA officials will also provide guidance on the department’s existing disaster resources and remind producers to keep thorough records of losses as the department’s authority to operate the five disaster assistance programs authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30, 2011.
In the coming weeks and months, Obama and Biden, along with Vilsack, will also likely visit key drought-impacted areas – some of which are in key swing states in the coming presidential election and will no doubt be tinged with some political aspects.
Vilsack, who has largely been outside the new farm bill process, has recently urged the GOP-led House to vote on its version of the farm bill (HR 6083), which the administration does not favor due to significantly higher cuts in food stamp funding ($16.1 billion, or 2 percent, over 10 years) versus the Senate-passed measure (around $4 billion). Obama and Biden will now likely join Vilsack in urging House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to put the House farm bill on the chamber's agenda, hopefully before the long August recess, citing the need for expired livestock disaster aid program to be renewed, among other farm policy features needed to aid the ongoing disaster in farm country.
Boehner and Cantor have been reluctant to schedule debate on the nearly $1 trillion farm bill because of GOP differences over the measure, especially food stamp funding, with some conservative GOP members wanting more food stamp funding cuts than the already $16.1 billion in cuts, whereas most Democratic members want far fewer cuts than the pending House bill. The fear is that the bill as it currently stands could go down to defeat if brought to a vote. This has upped the odds of some observers who predict the matter will be punted to after elections – perhaps during the lame-duck session of Congress, or even to 2013. Either scenario would necessitate an extension of some kind to current farm bill authority – and even that would likely be laced with key changes.