April 19, 2012 – 3:07 a.m.

Vilsack, Lawmakers Want Farm Bill Name Change to Emphasize Jobs

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has a problem with the farm bill: He doesn’t like the name.

It’s not that he wants a catchier title or something that would produce a clever acronym. The secretary would just like a more politically useful label for the authorizing legislation Congress struggles with every five years.

And with both parties emphasizing their devotion to job creation during this campaign season, someone was bound to come up with the idea of calling the farm bill a “jobs measure.”

Talking to agriculture reporters in Washington this week, Vilsack said he would prefer to call the legislation the “food, farm and jobs bill” and noted that “one out of every 12 jobs in the country is linked to agriculture.”

“I think we do it a disservice when we simply refer to it as the farm bill,” he said. “It is obviously about farming. It is obviously about agriculture. It is about the food we eat and the food we trade. It’s about the jobs we create, not just in agriculture but also a new bio-based economy that’s beginning to take hold in our economy. It’s about local and regional food systems.”

There are good reasons for farm-state lawmakers to seriously consider Vilsack’s naming suggestion. Farm bills have historically been advanced by coalitions of rural lawmakers, whose primary interest is assistance for farmers, joined by urban lawmakers who want to protect safety-net programs such as food stamps. Emphasizing the legislation’s connection to food and nutrition helps reinforce the idea that everyone’s constituents have a stake in the farm bill.

And calling anything a “jobs” bill is a political selling point at a time when unemployment rates remain high.

Vilsack is not alone in trying to highlight the breadth of the farm bill. Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, frequently emphasizes the farm bill’s job-creating potential.

Told of Vilsack’s proposal to redesignate the legislation as the food, farm and jobs bill, Stabenow endorsed the idea and directed an aide to write down the new name.

Other lawmakers have picked up the jobs angle, too. Some of those who would like federal agriculture policy to be more oriented toward family farms and “local and regional agriculture” — and less focused on the interests of large agribusiness — are backing the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act (S 1773, HR 3286) sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.

Big agriculture has also gotten the jobs message. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s website notes that “the farm bill creates jobs.” The agency says the state’s 81,500 farms employ 800,000 laborers.

Leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture committees hope to overcome budgetary constraints and complete a new five-year authorization of farm and nutrition programs this year. The current farm law, officially known as the Food, Conservation and Energy Act (PL 110-246), expires Sept. 30.

Stabenow is expected to announce the start of a farm bill markup next week. Her committee will try to approve the legislation and win Senate passage by late spring or early summer, leaving time for the House Agriculture Committee to complete its version.