MR. BRAND (NAFB Executive Director): There are probably very few Secretaries of Agriculture that have been more accessible than Tom Vilsack has, and with that, he is going to make some opening statements and going to take questions, and may I welcome Secretary Tom Vilsack. Thank you so much for being here.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Thank you very much. Thank you. Tom, thanks very much, and I certainly look forward to this opportunity.
As I walked into the building today, into the hotel, I saw the banner for the 68th Annual Convention. I frankly couldn't help but think about last year at this time being interviewed by several folks, including Lindsay, Lindsay Hill. My heart still goes out to her family. I know that many of you were probably very close to her, and when you come together as a group, it's just hard to understand how someone that young could have something happen that tragic. So I'm thinking about her today and thinking about her family and hoping that our thoughts and prayers continue to extend to them as they deal with a tough holiday season, no doubt.
It also is an opportunity for me to take a little pride in the fact that one of USDA's own is being recognized by this group. Colleen Callahan has been a terrific force for us in Rural Development. She has just an extraordinary way about her that's optimistic and hopeful and energetic. I don't know if she got that from her work in broadcasting. Maybe she did.
Ken, if that's the case, I'm expecting you to be more enthusiastic. Yeah, you got to step up your game.
SECRETARY VILSACK: But she's terrific, and I'm certainly pleased that she is being recognized by this organization.
Dr. Clarke, I can see you here. Kitty Smith, who was formerly from USDA, who is now looking quite happy and working with the American Farmland Trust, it's good to see her, and Michael Scuse is here, our — what are you, Mike? Acting Under? What is the technical term?
MR. SCUSE (Acting Under Secretary of FFAS): Technically, I'm still the Acting.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Acting, Acting Under Secretary.
Mike and I have a tough relationship. I'm a Steelers fan; he's a Ravens fan. He's got bragging rights this week, and he's utilized them. He's even wearing a purple tie today.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I'm here today to talk about a couple of really important aspects of USDA. Let me start with the announcement we made just an hour or so ago. We have completed our analysis of exports for this last fiscal year. I'm pleased to report that we did, indeed, reach a record amount of $137.4 billion of agricultural exports. This is $22.5 billion higher than the export number last year. It is a testimony to the extraordinary productivity and the quality and the affordability of what American farmers, ranchers, and producers are producing and growing and raising in America and exporting around the world.
The fact that this helps to support 1.15 million jobs in the economy underscores the importance of this particular part of our economy and the important role that it plays. One out of every 12 jobs in this country are connected in one form or another to agriculture, and certainly, agricultural exports is one of those ways in which agricultural is helping to get our economy moving in the right direction.
We expect and anticipate and project that we will have another good year next year of agricultural exports, particularly bolstered by the passage of three Free Trade Agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. I travel next week to Vietnam and to China. Michael Scuse has been to Vietnam earlier. I'll be the first acting Secretary, first sitting Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture to actually go to Vietnam. I will have an opportunity to speak with the ag minister there and perhaps the prime minister.
This is an emerging opportunity for us. Just a few short years ago, Vietnam was 50th on our list of trading partners. Today it's 15th, and I think it represents an extraordinary opportunity. Obviously, our trip to China is part of the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, but it again gives us an opportunity to sit down with the Chinese and continue our discussions on issues involving beef, involving some of the specialty crops, as well as the need for our regulatory processes to be better aligned. So I look forward to both of those visits, and I think this will help to contribute to this extraordinary record of achievement in agricultural exports.
Our export trade, it's the only part of the economy in a sense, a major part of the economy, that has a significant trade surplus. This year's trade surplus will be $42.7 billion. That too is a record. To give you a sense of how much that has grown in a relatively short period of time, if we had met 5 years ago to talk about these numbers, that trade surplus would have been just short of $5 billion, so there's been an eight-fold increase in a relatively short period of time.
We want to continue that momentum. We think the American brand of agricultural products is the best in the world, and if we can continue to be productive, continue to invest in the research that allows us to be productive, if we can find a way to invest and improve our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our ports, our dams, our lock systems, so we get the product to market more quickly, I think we can grow these numbers even more, and so I am optimistic and hopeful about that.
We also recognize that USDA has a responsibility and a role to rethink its processes and its connection with its customers to see if whether or not there are ways in which we can improve how we do our business. Whether it's with farmers and ranchers and producers, whether it's with companies that need permission or licensing from USDA, there has been a concern that's been expressed to me on several occasions about the amount of time it takes for us at USDA to reach decisions, and so we've tasked the staff and the team to take a look at how we might be able to reduce the time, because we know in business and agriculture, time is money.
So I'm pleased that we're reporting today a number of process improvements. One is focused on Secretarial Disaster Declarations. When I came into this office, it took approximately 3 months for us to get the process completed and the approvals signed off on. That's 3 months in which producers wondered whether or not they were going to be able to access emergency loans, access the disaster programs that were established by the 2008 Farm Bill. We think we can do better, and we believe we will do better.
We have taken this process, which was a six-step process, and reduced it to two steps. We believe that instead of months, it will now be a matter of weeks. So we will provide clarity in a much more timely fashion.
And hopefully, we'll also, with this process, avoid what we've seen, unfortunately, happening from time to time when governors of States are not aware of the time limits and the requirements, and the sad reality is that sometimes they wait too long to make requests for declaration for disaster status, and as a result, they lose the capacity to have that status designated. That in turn hurts their producers. So this process, we believe, will avoid that unfortunate circumstance.
One other issue that was addressed on a number of occasions to me was the time it took for us to look at veterinary biologics licensing. This is a process by which we are working with companies that are licensing product for use here and around the world. It took a considerable amount of time for our team to get to when their licensing was approved. We believe that we can cut that process by 100 days, a 20-percent reduction in time, so that should help that industry move forward more quickly.
As you all know, we're engaged in looking at petitions for deregulation status of certain crops. That can be a very, very long time period. We've heard repeatedly from folks on all sides of these issues, the need for us to decide things more quickly. In some cases, it can take as much as 3 or 4 years for that to take place, and working with process improvement, we believe we have reduced that time by 57 percent, knocked off what we believe is over 500 days out of that process, which should lead to a much more timely set of decisions and greater clarity in that area.
Farmers and ranchers are well aware of the fact that either our Risk Management Agency or our Farm Service Agencies require a lot of acreage reporting data to be collected. In the past, we had 71 different dates between these two agencies involving 395 crops. That's 71 dates too many, from our perspective. So the teams came together and decided that there would be 15 common reporting dates between the two agencies on those crops, substantially reducing the complexity and the time. And so we're looking at ways in which we can continually work to reduce the amount of time, paperwork that's involved in our programs.
We'll continue, obviously, to do this as we are faced with continued budget reductions. It's a way in which we can focus on our core competencies, take this challenge, and create it into an opportunity to do our business better, more quickly and more efficiently, without sacrificing the quality, and that should in turn help continue to build on what we are seeing this year, which is the best ag income year we've seen in 40 years. Nominally, it's the best year we've had ever, if you adjust for inflation. We haven't seen income levels of this level in agriculture since the early 1970s. We want to build on that. We think we have the best product in the world, we have the best producers in the world, and we're going to continue to try to be the best Department of Agriculture.
So, with that, I'd be happy to try to answer as many questions as time allows. I don't know how this works, whether you have to walk up to the microphone. Is that the way you work it here?
Where is Tom? Walk up to the mic, Tom, is that what we want people to do?
MR. BRAND (NAFB Executive Director): Yes.
ATTENDEE (KMJ Fresno): Is that how we're going to do it? Okay. Hi. Thank you for coming, Secretary. Shaun Lile, KMJ Fresno.
There are a lot of organizations that are not in agriculture who have very strong opinions about agriculture, such as the Humane Society of the United States. How much weight do these organizations have with you and with your Department?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Help me out by what do you mean, "weight."
ATTENDEE (KMJ Fresno): Well, for example, there is the word about a forum being put together between USDA and the Humane Society of the United States. Talk is that they're setting up the agenda. I mean, are you going to let them dictate to you —
SECRETARY VILSACK: No.
ATTENDEE (KMJ Fresno): — or are you going to dictate to them, or are you just opening a conversation? And how much do you want to hear from these organizations?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, first of all, we're not going to — frankly, nobody, in a sense, at least from my perspective, should be dictating to the Department. I mean, what we're trying to establish is a Department that understands that we have a responsibility in a democracy to listen. If people have concerns, if they are legitimate, we have a responsibility to listen.
Now, that doesn't mean we have to listen in a vacuum. What that does mean is that we have to listen and we have to solicit viewpoints. So, unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding about a certain memo that got out, and essentially, what we're talking about is a process by which a lot of people are going to be at the table, and we're going to have a conversation between all those folks at the table. What we have found is we often learn a little bit from those conversations.
There is a broader issue here, and it is not the issue that prompted your question, which is, depending upon what audience I am in, you've got a situation where farm broadcasters will present it one way, folks in other media will present it a different way, and my view is that what we have to do in Farm Country is we have to recognize we're less than 2 percent of the nation's population.
We do really important work for the nation's population. We, meaning the farmers and producers of this country, provide this nation with great national security, provide us the opportunity to feed ourselves; 85 percent of our food is produced by us. You can't find that hardly anywhere else in the world, especially countries of the size of the United States. That gives us enormous capacity. It gives us capacity to produce other new products from what we grow. There's a whole new opportunity for a biobased economy out there that I think we're going to take advantage of. It gives us a capacity to be far less dependent on foreign oil because of our capacity and to export.
But we're still less than 2 percent, and unfortunately, the other 98 percent are several generations, in many cases, removed from anybody that had anything to do with the land. So there really needs to be an opportunity to engage the other 98 percent in a meaningful conversation, so that they appreciate and understand what we do, and that's what we're trying to do here. We're trying to create a process by which we engage the rest of the country and in a relationship where there is mutual trust, and when I say mutual trust, between the Department and the other 98 percent, because I don't want them to think that we're a tool of anybody. What we're a tool of, if anything, is this whole opportunity for agriculture to advance national security, to create economic opportunity, to help redefine the American economy.
This biobased opportunity is enormously — it's got enormous potential, and agriculture, as I've been saying for the last year, has really created a road map for this country to go to a different place in terms of its economy. Farmers understood in the '80s, they couldn't be laden with debt, so they began to reduce their debt. So, today, for every dollar of debt, there's $11 of asset value, enormous potential, flexibility to use resources to invest in technology, which allows us to be more productive, which allows us to create new opportunities, which allows us to export, which creates jobs and income.
It's a great formula, okay? But in order for that formula to work, we've got to have a farm, jobs, research, export, trade, conservation bill. In order to have that happen, we've got to have the other 98 percent, the representatives of the other 98 percent, know what this is all about.
So it's really about engaging people in conversation, and it's not necessarily taking sides. If I have to make a decision on things that I have to decide, I will, but we're trying to create a conversation here, and we're trying to create a trusting relationship, so that people have an appreciation — an appreciation, not just an understanding, but an appreciation for what they have with American producers. And I think if we have that conversation, then a lot of the concerns that are generated that may not have much basis won't be considered credible, but you can't have that unless you have a conversation.
ATTENDEE: Mr. Secretary, as Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA, do you see any reason at all that our producers should have to have another permit to spray for pests in and around water?
SECRETARY VILSACK: No. And I'm not sure that that's what's being proposed.
You know, that raises a series of questions about the EPA, which is I think, again, what you're asking, and I think over the course of the last year, there's been a growing appreciation, to use the word, and understanding of what's going on in the Farm Country because we've made a concerted effort at USDA to link up EPA with American producers, commodity group representatives, trade representatives, so that there's a better understanding.
I look at the Dust Rule issue, which I think the last time I was here, there was a question about it. I tried to tell everybody there isn't a Dust Rule. Letters come out from the EPA Administrator, there's no Dust Rule.
On the spray issue, I think that there is no intent on the part of the EPA to try to regulate spray drift that may occur as a result of normal application. I think what they're mostly concerned about is commercial applications and large-scale applications. So I think it's important for us to have a basic understanding of what's being proposed, and sometimes I think it gets out and it gets a bit twisted. We've had examples of that recently. Dust is a good example.
ATTENDEE (Western Agri-Radio Networks): Thank you for being here, Mr. Secretary. George Gatley, Western Agri-Radio Networks.
I wonder about the all-important migrant farm workers, and you and I have talked about it before, but are we any closer to getting a program, or are they still in limbo?
SECRETARY VILSACK: I don't think we're much closer. There has been a proposal, which is commonly referred to as "E-Verify," which the agricultural family and community is not particularly excited about, because it would be a layer of responsibility and burden that we could not actually meet. It would create real difficulties for our producers, and so, fortunately, I think ag groups are committed to saying in very loud and no uncertain terms, "That's probably not going to work for us."
Each one of your questions creates a larger context, and the context your question creates is the issue of immigration. The reality is, just from a personal standpoint, you may or may not know this about me, I started out life in an orphanage in western Pennsylvania, so I don't know what my nationality is. I really don't know. Some indication I might be German, some indication I might be Irish, I don't know. I'm always pretty jealous of people who celebrate their day, their heritage day.
I suspect if I talked to every single person in this room who didn't have a similar experience to mine, who actually was raised in a family where they know what their heritage is and they know the story of their great-great-grandfather who came over to this country who struggled, with a grandmother who farmed and struggled and saved, and had this thought, belief that their next generation would have a better life, you would tell and retell and retell the story of America. And that story is a story of immigration. It's a story of people coming into this country with hopes and dreams, willing to sacrifice, willing to work hard.
If any of you have been out on a farm field, if any of you have watched farm workers work, you know it's hard work. You know it's, in some cases, brutal work, and you also know that we're having a harder and harder time finding folks willing to do that work. And that's been part of the American story. The immigrant story is often not about the American dream first. It's about the American struggle first, about doing jobs, hard jobs, difficult jobs, dangerous jobs, backbreaking jobs, and sacrificing and working hard and saving and then creating a new opportunity.
This debate is one in which folks on both sides attempt to use this for political purposes, and they use it to divide us as a people. They use it to create fear, anxiety. I challenge every single broadcaster in this audience to give me one time in this nation's history where we have succeeded when we've been fearful — one time. I can give you countless examples of where this country succeeded when it was fearless.
And what has to happen in immigration is that folks in Congress have to stand up with political spine, and they have to understand this is an issue that's got to be addressed. We have a broken system, and part of it's fixing the border, but part of it's also fixing the system, and that system, it's got to be comprehensive. And the reason why you've got to have spine to do it is because there are going to be folks back home, they're going to want to divide and scare people because of it.
I'll tell you, you do not want to be a part of the first American generation that stops that immigrant story. If you do, I think we risk losing what's really special in part about this country, so no further along. The day we will be further along is when folks stand up and say, "You know what, I don't care what the political consequences are. I'm going to go back home and talk about this in a way that doesn't scare people, that says you elected me to fix problems, and I'm going to fix this problem because we need it for American agriculture." We cannot have crops rotting in the ground, and unfortunately and sadly, in some parts of our country, that's happening today.
ATTENDEE: Mr. Secretary, another proposed regulation that's out there that a lot of folks in Farm Country are concerned about, not from your agency but from the Department of Labor, regarding child labor and possibility that very little can be done by anyone under 16 years of age on the farm or ranch in the future, were you aware of this before it was proposed by the Department, and have you had any dialogue with those folks over there in regards to trying to not hinder agricultural families in this regard?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, let's be clear about this. Just stay right there at the microphone here. I want to make sure I heard your question correctly. Your understanding is Department of Labor has proposed regulations that will prevent children from being engaged in work on the farm?
ATTENDEE: That's my understanding, except for their own family. They can work for their mom and dad.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Okay. Let's start off with a clear understanding, because your question didn't include that exception —
ATTENDEE: Right, I understand.
SECRETARY VILSACK: — and that's an important part, and that's, in part, an answer to your question.
Every agency has its own capacity to make rulemaking. I am a coequal with the Department of Labor. I am not in charge of the Department of Labor.
We always have input on issues that involve agriculture, and we've explained to folks the importance of being able to have young people from families be able to continue to do what they've done forever, which is to help family members on the farm, so that they understand what farming is all about.
There is a comment period that, at our request and at the request of other farm groups, was extended by the Department of Labor, so that they could get better input and more input about a Proposed Rule, and so I think it's important for that comment period to expire, which it does December 1st. And we've been encouraging folks in Farm Country to let their concerns be known about this. I think everybody shares the goal, which is that we want to make sure that this is a safe, safe process for children, because this can be, as you know, some pretty heavy-duty equipment that people have to operate around farms, and there is some risk associated with augers and things of that nature, and I think there is a concern about that.
I'm sure that folks are going to weigh in on this, and I'm sure the Department of Labor is going to do what every Department ought to do, is to take those concerns under consideration. And we certainly have indicated to them the importance of allowing that process that's worked in farm families for generations to continue, which is one of the reasons why there is that exception in the proposal, and we'll see what else evolves.
ATTENDEE: Thank you.
ATTENDEE: Mr. Secretary, I too thank you for coming to our convention again this year.
Right now in Congress, they are attempting to come together with the leaders of the two Ag Committees and come up with the framework at least for the beginning of the 2012 Farm Bill, with the assumption that the farm legislation will end at the end of this fiscal year, and also the realization that in past years, it's taken months and months, if not years, to write that bill. Is there any possibility that what they're attempting to do now with four people in such a short timeline will really work?
SECRETARY VILSACK: That's a good question, Ken.
ATTENDEE: Please don't become too philosophical on this.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I was going to ask the question will it work, as in will it get done in the Congress, or will whatever they do get done in the farm field.
Let me answer it this way. First of all, I think the Ag Committee leaders should be commended and complimented for their willingness to work in a bipartisan way. I said this earlier today. If we had the level of bipartisan cooperation in other committees and other actions of Congress that we have with the Ag Committee, I think there is a lot more that could be done and would have been done that hasn't been done. So I think that they are to be commended.
Chairman Lucas and Chairwoman Stabenow and the Ranking Members, Senator Roberts and Representative Peterson, have worked well together to come up with a number, which they believe represents a good-faith commitment to the deficit reduction in part and in addition to what we've already done, and they all understand that the current framework for whatever the Committee of 12 does — now, I'm not ready to say they're the Super Committee, because they haven't done anything yet.
SECRETARY VILSACK: The Committee of 12, whatever they do, as it's currently structured, it's fast-tracked, which means that it can get through the Senate with 51 votes and not 60. Now, if they go by the November 23rd deadline and they have failed to put something together and failed to propose something, then it doesn't get fast-tracked. It has to go through the normal course, and you know how difficult it has been to get 60 votes on anything in the Senate, much less the 218 votes in the House.
So I think it is strategically smart on the part of the leaders to look for opportunities, if they can, to get the safety net in place, to get conservation adequately funded and simplified, to get rural development supported, to get nutrition assistance programs where they need to be, to continue to promote exports and research, and put that into a process that potentially requires 51 votes today as opposed to 60 votes in an election year. And why is that important? Because if they're able to do that and do it well and get the support of 51 Senators and 218 House Members, then what we have is certainty during a very uncertain time.
Everything I hear of in the countryside is folks want to know what the rules are going to be. They want to know what will the safety net look like. They need to know that, and they need to be assured that there is going to be a safety net. I think there will be. I think folks in the countryside are very anxious to know what the conservation programs are going to be, and we have a record number of acres involved in conservation. We want to build on that, so I think they are strategically smart.
Now, the challenge is always going to be the Title I programs, and the challenge is always that you got an enormous diversity of agriculture in the United States. And what may work for one commodity or make really well for one commodity may not work so well for another commodity or group of commodities, and that's the challenge, but if they can figure that out, then I think the rest of it falls pretty much in place. And I think they'll have a lot of support for it.
I think it beats the process we had before in which there was an acrimony between the administration and the Congress and two vetoes and overrides of vetoes and uncertainty and a whole lot of time spent. I think this is, hopefully, a better process.
ATTENDEE: Thank you.
ATTENDEE (Agri-Pulse): Mr. Secretary, Stewart Doan with Agri-Pulse and NAFB News Service.
I know you have been hesitant to make formal recommendations to the Ag Committee leaders from USDA, but I'll give you a little opportunity to provide some advice to them, if you so choose.
Chairwoman Stabenow has indicated something like a modified acre program is likely to be a part of the Title I safety net. In the last 24 to 36 hours, there are indications that for the reasons you just stated, the diversity of agriculture in this country, that another option would be added to this in the form of a target price program. Is this the kind of efficiency and streamlining of programs that FSA folks have gone to the Hill and talked about in terms of administering farm programs that they need? And secondly, is a target price-type option the forward-thinking type of policy we need going forward?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think what FSA has been talking about in terms of simplification and process improvement has been primarily to focus, Stewart, on the need for the technology investments that would allow FSA to be able to communicate with farmers more directly at their home and more easily through technology and through computer programs rather than filling out a whole lot of paper at the office and having repeated trips, multiple visits, multiple questions being answered multiple times. I think that's the way that they're looking at it, and I think that's what they're focused on.
If we have the technology, then depending upon what Congress decides to do in the engineering and designing of that, we'll be able to handle, because technology will give us the capacity not to have to manually produce the programs, which we've had to do in the past. And it's the manual production of the programs that's using 1980 software, 1980 software programs, that makes it much more difficult, complicated, and time-consuming.
You know, for me, the key here is to make sure that we do, in fact, have a safety net that reflects the diversity of American agriculture and that is defensible to the 98 percent of the folks who do not farm.
I had a great discussion earlier today with farmers here in Missouri, and they said, "What about crop insurance?" I said, "Well, you know, the great thing about crop insurance is that people get it," the other 98 percent. That's something they understand. They go out and they buy car insurance, they buy property insurance, they buy liability insurance. They protect themselves against risk. They pay a premium. They get the protection. They get that. You can get your arms around it. It's not really complicated, so people like crop insurance. They think that's okay. Now, they may not understand fully how far government subsidizes that process, but they're still okay, because they understand the concept.
It was the Direct Payment Program that they just didn't get, and what they didn't get was, "Gees, these prices are high, and yet the checks are still in the mail. What's that all about?" They just didn't get it, and because they didn't get it, it erodes the confidence and the understanding of all the farm. I mean, when they talk about Farm Bill, we need to rename this, because it's much more than that. It's about research. It's about trade. It's about rural development. It's about conservation. It's much more than just the farm programs, and when you undermine the credibility of the Farm Bill, you undermine the credibility of all those programs.
So, if they come up with a system that targets to help the people who need it when they need it and that helps the people most in need, I think people are going to say, "Yeah, that's a good thing." And maybe it will establish greater confidence in the overall system, which will make it easier for us to explain why it's important to have all the other aspects of farm policy, the capacity to purchase commodities, the capacity to promote trade, the ability to invest in research, the important role that biofuels and renewable energy will play in our future, and the capacity to use our Rural Development resources wisely and creatively.
The last thing I would say is I think there are enormous opportunities for simplification within the total structure of this legislation. I can guarantee you that the conservation title will be streamlined, and that's good news for producers. I mean, I don't know how they — I've studied this thing for 3 years. When I got confirmed, they gave me these three-ring binders. I thought, my God, I got like 20 of them. There are 20 different programs in conservation. We don't need 20 different programs. We need fewer programs and more flexibility, and we need to empower folks at the local level to be able to work with that farmer to craft that conservation plan and fit it into a large watershed effort to conserve the soil and make sure the water is clean and plentiful.
So I think there are opportunities here, and we're going to continue to provide the technical expertise, the technical assistance that Congress really needs to craft this, and we'll raise the red flag if we see something that isn't going to work. We haven't talked about dairy, but there's a whole opportunity here for a new approach in dairy, which I think is important.
I think they're working hard, and again, they're working in a bipartisan way. I'll tell you, after having spent almost 3 years in Washington, anytime people are working in a bipartisan way, I want to help them. Everybody should want to help them.
I'll tell you what, two more. I've got two more people.
MR. BRAND (NAFB Executive Director): We have time for about two more.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Okay.
ATTENDEE: Mr. Secretary, as far as the GIPSA livestock marketing rule, we understand that the language has been sent to OMB. There seems to be concern from livestock groups about the competition portion of that and how it relates to damages, and also that they will not get a chance to comment on the economic analysis. Could you talk about that?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think it's important to understand we're doing this in stages. The rule itself, not all the rule is at OMB, just portions of it. The portions — let me sort of back up. 66,000 comments, we took them seriously.
Look, folks, there's a process here. The process works. Congress passes a law. Executive branch executes the law, has responsibility to let folks know how they're going to execute it through a rulemaking process, and has to give the public opportunity to comment. And then it's up to the executive branch to listen to those comments, react and respond to those comments, and then tailor the rule based on what they've learned to try to do the best job possible.
We went out. We listened to farmers. We had four hearings with Attorney General Holder and others. We've heard complaints and concerns. We've put a rule out there, lots of comments, lots of passion on this issue, so we take this in good faith. We have Joe Glauber take a look at this, and as we're looking at it, there are certain pieces of it that are fairly simple, fairly easy to understand, for which there was hardly any concern, contract language, arbitration issues. So we say, "Let's move those forward. The tournament system was one which we felt had sufficient support, and it was simplified. Let's push that forward, but gives folks an opportunity maybe to comment on what we proposed in that little space."
We learned that there were other aspects of it that may not work at all, and in the competition area, we'll still working on that, because it's really complicated. It's really, really complicated. Based on the comments that we got, the economic analysis that had been done, it's complicated, so we're still working on that. We haven't yet made a decision about what we're going to do about that.
So our hope is that Congress respects the process and allows it to move forward, and so that's what's at OMB right now. It's a segment, a portion, not the whole thing, but a portion, okay?
ATTENDEE: In your opening comments, you were talking about the trade and as you get preparing for the trip to Vietnam and China. You also mentioned locks and dams. How much more capacity do we have to grow our exports without upgrading our infrastructure, and if you're asked that question, are we a reliable supplier if something happens?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Do you want me to answer that last question?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Yes.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Look, again, the great thing about America is that we just have a lot of different ways to get product to market. I'm reminded of the oil spill that occurred a couple years ago and the concern about the port system down there being shut down or the Mississippi River system being shut down, and I asked the question what do we do, is that going to be a problem. Not really, we can redirect things to other ports. So we have lots of flexibility. There's no question in my mind, we can continue and will continue and ought to be a reliable supplier.
Now, can we become more competitive? That's the question. Can we be more competitive? And I think the answer to that question is yes; we can be more competitive. How? We can be more competitive with more investment in infrastructure.
Now, some people will articulate the need for this to be done now because we need jobs, and that is a legitimate reason to be for infrastructure. No question, it will lead to jobs and jobs now. It will grow the economy, but depending upon how much we do and where we do it and what we do, it will also allow us to be extraordinarily more competitive than we are today, because it will improve our capacity to get product to market more quickly and more efficiently. And I say more competitive because the rest of the world is not waiting for us to make this decision. They've already decided. China, India, some of the countries in South America have already decided to invest in infrastructure and to put investments not just in their country but in other countries to improve infrastructure, create relationships, be able to get the natural resources that allows them to produce product that they can get to market efficiently and compete with us.
This is a place that ought to be a no-brainer for people in Congress. It ought to be a place where there is no bipartisan dispute, because in the past, infrastructure has always been a bipartisan area of agreement. So, with the right combination and the right investment and the right strategy, we can build this country. We can rebuild roads. We can rebuild dams. We can rebuild bridges. We can rebuild ports. We can rebuild locks and dam systems on significant navigable waters. We can improve our airports. And in doing so in all of those areas, we create jobs immediately, and we create the capacity of this American economy as we produce more and make more and create more and innovate more to export more. And if you couple that with the capacity of American agriculture to induce and to create a biobased economy where we have thousands of products that can be made from virtually everything we grow and everything we've been throwing away or everything that we could use more efficiently, the possibilities for this country, again, are unlimited. So I would hope that Congress would find the will and the way and the capacity to agree on major infrastructure funding.
Now, the last thing I will say is there are those who say, "But we have this deficit," and I say, "Yes, we have to reduce our budgets. We have to be more efficient. We have to take a look at personnel, office structures, and all those hard choices," which we at USDA will do and are doing, but you must also grow your way out of a deficit. You can't just cut your way out. Eight years as a governor, balance budgets, 5 years as a mayor, balance budgets, I know this, you cannot necessarily just cut your way out of a deficit. You've got to grow your way out as well. To grow, you've got to invest, so spend less but invest wisely.