WASHINGTON — Stalled negotiations over a farm bill threaten more than trouble for farmers and consumers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says. They're also a broader test of whether Washington can work.
The huge bill, more than a year overdue, is caught in a dispute between the House and Senate over how much to cut the food stamp program, among other issues. Vilsack notes that failure to pass it before the end of the year could double milk prices for Americans, spark retaliatory tariffs from Brazil and leave livestock producers who have been hit by storms and drought without standard federal assistance.
In an interview with USA TODAY's Capital Download, Vilsack characterized the talks as a case study of an embattled government.
"This is a bill that should reignite what little DNA is left of bipartisanship in Washington, D.C.," he says. "This has been a bill that's always been relatively easy for Congress to get done, and if we don't get it done, I think it sends another negative message to the country about the workings of government."
On the other hand, passing the farm bill could be a tonic for what ails the capital, he argues, likening it to a stumbling football team that decides to get back to basics.
"We (should) get back to blocking and tackling — pass a bill, a major bill," he says. "When that happens, basically, relationships are formed, opportunities for success are created and I think it creates a momentum" that could boost prospects in Washington for a budget agreement and even immigration legislation.
He says "folks have been stuck" in House-Senate negotiations that missed a self-imposed deadline last week to agree on a framework so a bill could be passed before the end of the year.
Vilsack, 62, a former two-term governor of Iowa, was interviewed for the video newsmaker series in the USDA's historic Beaux-Arts-style headquarters just off the National Mall.
On politics, he predicts Hillary Rodham Clinton would fare better in the Hawkeye State in 2016 than she did in 2008, when Barack Obama defeated her in the opening presidential caucuses. "Let me just say that, from my perspective, Secretary Clinton didn't lose the Iowa caucus; the president won the Iowa caucus," says Vilsack, who supported Clinton. "His team did an enormous job of attracting new people to the system."
If Clinton decides to run again, "I'm reasonably confident that she'll receive a very good reception in Iowa," he says. He is less certain that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would be welcome in the state's Republican caucuses, won in 2012 by Rick Santorum.
If Christie runs, he'll need to take a page from Obama's book, Vilsack says. "He's going to have to look at ways in which he can expand the base of caucusgoers, because it is a very conservative Republican Party right now."
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