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House’s bills coming due

Lowell Schachtsiek shows Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Barack Obama around his Palmyra, Mo. farm. Vilsack argues that both the farm and immigration bills pending in the House are vital to farmers’ future.

The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture shared the Obama administration’s message on immigration reform and the farm bill directly with Midwest journalists Tuesday, connecting the two massive federal bills as well as making a persuasive argument for the urgent need for Congress to pass both.

If Congress fails to pass the immigration bill soon, farmers will lose access to the workers necessary to bring in this year’s crop, Secretary Tom Vilsack pointed out.

“Let me be clear, U.S. agriculture depends on a stable and dependable workforce,” he said in a telephone interview with The Journal Gazette. “If there are insufficient hands to get the work done, agriculture will suffer. And that’s what is happening.”

Fruit left to rot on trees or vegetables not harvested from fields because a lack of labor will hurt farmers as well as consumers, who will pay higher prices at grocery stores because of the decrease in supply.

“For agriculture, whether it’s in Indiana or in other states, if Indiana doesn’t get crops to market, we will be less of an agricultural producer than other countries,” Vilsack said.

The aptly named Border Security, Economic Opportunity & Immigration Modernization Act Of 2013 passed the Senate with a strong majority of votes (68-32) in late June, but the bill has languished in the House.

The immigration reform bill, crafted by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” provides a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, is a critic of the bill, claiming it doesn’t do enough to secure the borders and saying the borders need to be secured before establishing a path to citizenship.

But Vilsack rightly points out that the bill greatly increases border security, including the addition of 20,000 border agents, mandated electronic verification to prevent businesses from hiring illegal workers, another 700 miles of border fencing and additional monitoring of entries and exits to ensure foreign visitors don’t violate visas.

“There are some who raise these concerns who are just using it as an excuse,” Vilsack said of Coats’ position. “They don’t want a bill to pass. That’s not helpful to agriculture, not helpful to rural America, not helpful to border security and not helpful to deficit reduction.”

Vilsack pointed out that the Congressional Budget Office estimates the additional tax revenue will reduce the national deficit by $200 billion over the next 10 years. And the gross domestic product is expected to go up by at least half a percentage point.

“Rural America deserves the passage of this bill and a comprehensive farm bill and if Congress fails, then I think rural America deserves better,” Vilsack said.

The House failed to pass the farm bill in June, divided largely over a how much to cut from food aid for low-income Americans.

The latest salvo in the debate over the five-year farm bill is a Republican-led effort to separate farmer assistance from food assistance.

U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, a farmer who has accepted farm subsidies, is one of the most vocal proponents of separating farm policy from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

Vilsack is clear that separating the two items would be a mistake that would harm the nation’s food security.

“The farm programs won’t get the support they need,” Vilsack said. “We don’t always have commodity prices that high – especially in the Midwest. It’s a mistake for farmers and ranchers to support separation. I’m not alone in my thinking; 530 organizations, including most farm, conservation and anti-hunger groups, said, ‘Don’t do this. It’s a mistake.’ ”

Passing the bill provides the stability farmers need. It also protects about $1.5 billion for jobs, disaster assistance for farmers and conservation programs and trade promotion programs to ensure America’s agricultural sector remains competitive with the rest of the world.

“All those people will be hurt if the House fails to get its act together,” Vilsack said. “Not only will producers be impacted, but so will consumers.”