Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, 2/5/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:13 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: I’m bringing guest stars. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here for your daily briefing. As you can see, today I have with me Secretary Vilsack. You may have seen reported this morning that the Secretary is establishing -- and the administration -- is establishing climate hubs in various regions across the country. He’d like to provide some information to you about that. He can also give you a little insight into the bipartisan farm bill that has passed Congress.
If you have questions for him on those subject areas, please address them at the top of the briefing to the Secretary. And then, he can go on with his day and I’ll remain here for questions on other subjects.
And with that, Secretary Vilsack.
SECRETARY VILSACK: I appreciate the opportunity to be with you this afternoon. It may come as a surprise to you -- it certainly did to me -- that 51 percent of the entire landmass in the United States is engaged in either agriculture or forestry. This is a part of our economy that is significant; 16 million people are employed as a result of agriculture and it represents roughly 5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. And 14 percent of all manufacturing in this country is related to agriculture, forestry and food processing. So what impacts agriculture and forestry matters.
We’ve obviously seen a significant number of severe storms; very early snowstorms that devastated livestock in the Dakotas; the recent drought in California, which is now going into its third year, but now very intense -- is a reflection of the changing weather patterns that will indeed impact and affect crop production, livestock production, as well as an expansion of pests and diseases that could compromise agriculture and forestry.
The President has been quite insistent in Cabinet meetings and in private meetings that he expects his Cabinet to be forceful and to act; we can’t wait for congressional action. So pursuant to his Climate Action Plan, we established a number of climate change hubs. They are located in seven states, and there are three sub-hubs. The seven states are New Hampshire, North Carolina, Iowa, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon. The substations are located in California, in Michigan and in Puerto Rico.
These climate change hubs and the substations are going to do a risk analysis of crop production and of forestry in terms of changing climates. It will establish the vulnerabilities that we have in each region of the country. We’ll determine from those vulnerabilities strategies and technologies and steps that can be taken to mitigate the impacts and effects of climate change, as well as adapting to new ways of agriculture.
It will take full advantage of the partnerships that we have with land-grant universities, our sister federal agencies, as well as the private and non-profit sector. And every five years, these climate hubs will be reviewed. It will be a coordinated effort between our Agricultural Research Service, our Forest Service, and our NRCS -- the Natural Research Conservation Service. This will allow us to identify ways in which we can make a difference, and then use the tools that are now being provided with a passage of the farm bill.
The farm bill passage is a reflection of the President’s commitment to working with Congress to getting things done. And I’m excited about the opportunities that this bill provides in terms of the issue of climate: The establishment of a new research foundation, which will identify up to $400 million of additional resources to go into agricultural research. This will add to the $120 million that we’re currently spending on a wide variety of climate-related issues, as well as on agricultural issues.
The opportunity to restore disaster assistance: Livestock producers throughout the last couple of years have been unable to access disaster assistance, because the programs expired under the previous farm bill that have now been restored.
The ability to create new market opportunities to use what is being grown and raised in creative ways: Manufacturing is going to come back to rural America, the establishment of a bio-based manufacturing opportunity where we take crop residue and livestock waste, turning it into chemicals, polymers and other materials will create new job opportunities in rural America.
The opportunity to work with conservation and specifically with partnerships that are being formed in large watershed areas of significance to this country will also allow us to adapt and mitigate to climate, whether it’s in the Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes or the Everglades, the Upper Mississippi River Basin, the Gulf Coast, or the California Bay Delta.
So combined with the new farm bill and the new opportunities it creates, these climate hubs I think will equip us to make sure that the 51 percent of the landmass of the United States is protected against changing climates, and allow us to maintain the economic opportunity that agriculture creates in this economy, oftentimes underappreciated and under realized. But it is a significant factor.
And, frankly, it will also allow us to continue to be what I like to refer to as a food secure nation. The United States is blessed because we basically create and grow just about everything we need to survive as a people. Hardly any other country in the world can say that. So we want to make sure we continue to be in that strong position.
So with that, I’ll be glad to answer questions.
MR. CARNEY: Nedra.
Q I’m just confused. Is this something new that the government is doing, or are these activities that they already do and research that’s already done being combined into one central --
SECRETARY VILSACK: It’s a combination of both. It’s taking existing avenues -- our Research Service, our Forest Service -- and charging them with a new responsibility, to basically take a look at precisely what risks are currently being recognized and what’s the vulnerability to agriculture and to forestry in each region of the country.
The reason we have seven of these major hubs is because each region in the country does things a little bit differently in terms of agriculture and forestry. Each of them are faced with slightly different circumstances. Warm weather in the Northeast may be a different consequence than in the Southeast, for example. So they will basically take existing structures, add to that additional responsibilities pursuant to the President’s Climate Action Plan, do this assessment and then identify technologies and practical science-based guidance that will say to farmers, to those who own forested areas and to the government, this is how you need to manage; these are the steps you need to take to utilize water more effectively; these are seed technologies and biotechnology that you might use to respond to less water or too much water; this is what you can do in terms of forest restoration.
And then using the new programs being established in this farm bill that don’t get a lot of attention focuses oftentimes on subsidies and the SNAP program, but in between that is this research foundation, new market opportunities, local and regional food systems, et cetera, creates a whole new opportunity to revitalize and restructure the rural economy.
So these climate action hubs -- or these climate hubs are really part of the President’s Climate Action Plan and his directive to us to actually act -- not wait for Congress, not wait for laws to be passed, but to do it on our own.
Q Is there a cost for this? Is there some spending in the farm bill on this?
SECRETARY VILSACK: We currently have $120 million that we’ve dedicated of our research budget to climate. This will add on top of that. It’s difficult to assess precisely how much money will be spent because it depends on what the risks are and how significant they are, and what conservation programs will be used. But I can tell you that it will be a significant investment made in each region of the country because of the importance of it. When you’ve got 5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, when you’ve got 16 million people employed who are dependent on this, you’ve got 51 percent of your landmass, you better be paying attention to it.
Q And finally, can you just say what you think the impact of the food stamp cuts will be on the Americans who rely on that?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to identify precisely what we’re talking about here. What we’ve essentially done and what the Congress has essentially done is they’ve basically said, look, those people who qualify for food stamps and for the SNAP program who have been qualifying because they already qualified for low-income heating assistance, they’re going to have a slightly higher bar to cross before they qualify. In the event that that slightly higher bar basically will mean that someone may lose their coverage, then it is up to us at USDA to ensure that we fill in the gaps, that we do a good job of making sure folks know how to apply in the normal process so that we are in a position to cover as many people as possible.
I’m very thankful that we’re dealing with that kind of reaction to the SNAP program as opposed to the $40 billion cut that was proposed in the House, which would have taken 2 to 3 million people off of the program and we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to bring those people into the program.
This is a program that impacts senior citizens, people with disabilities, and working men and women and their children -- 92 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are in those four categories. And the bill also allows us to do a more creative job in working with states to get folks who are able-bodied, who are looking for work, who want to work, giving them a better opportunity to get work.
In the past, states who administered this program, they’ve got a workforce development office over here who knows where the jobs are, they’ve got a human services office over here that knows where the SNAP beneficiaries are -- who they are, but they never talk to each other. We’re going to now be encouraged to get them to talk so that the job opportunities will be linked to the people looking for opportunities. And I think that’s probably the best way of reducing the SNAP rolls and the most effective way because it doesn’t really harm people.
So we are going to deal with this the right way and we’re going to continue to use this program for the people it was entitled to -- it was meant for.
Q Mr. Secretary, is what you’re saying on the SNAP reductions that you’ll be able to absorb this and cover most or not -- or virtually all of the people who are still receiving it?
SECRETARY VILSACK: I think we will be able to cover quite a few of them. I don’t want to say today that we will be able to cover most because I don’t know precisely how many folks will lose their benefits completely. But what I can say is those who lose their benefits because they no longer qualify under the LIHEAP exception or exemption or program now may still be able to qualify under the normal way of applying for SNAP. And we want to make sure that those people don’t fall through the cracks because they need help.
And a significant percentage of those people are in the categories of identified, and those who aren’t, they don’t stay on the SNAP program for very long. So it’s important for us to continue to administer this program as effectively as we can.
Q And back to the climate hubs. Is it accurate to say that the number-one job is to teach people how to adjust to climate change within their agricultural forestry or livestock line of work? Is that the ultimate goal?
SECRETARY VILSACK: The ultimate goal is, first and foremost, to understand precisely what the risks are, to be able to do a better job of forecasting when those risks might be a reality.
Q A drought risk or --
SECRETARY VILSACK: Right, or a significant infestation of pests because climates are either warmer than anticipated or something along those lines. And then
Q Over the horizon thing?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Yes. And then be able to equip those folks who are in that region who are impacted by that risk to be able to either adapt and shift to a different crop that they produce, or use a different seed technology, biotechnology, whatever they might, to eliminate the risk; or if the risk is not something that can be eliminated, how we mitigate the impact of it; and then to be able to accumulate all that information and have one repository at the hub so that folks who are researching, folks who are looking at ways to perfect work that we’re doing will be able to access that information. And each region of the country will have its own separate analysis, which is important.
Q Many land-grant universities have large agricultural educational systems -- they do all this work themselves already, don’t they? Is there anything duplicative about this?
SECRETARY VILSACK: It’s not duplicative; it’s focused. It is using our resources at ARS, which is our internal research service, in partnership. It will allow us to fund additional research. It will allow us to go deeper. Land-grant universities are often pooled based on their own level of expertise. You may be a land-grant university in California that’s got specialty crop understanding, but you also have dairy, you have livestock interests in California. This regional hub in Oregon, working with the Davis California operation, will basically focus on the entire range.
And oftentimes, forestry is not considered unless you have a significant number of national forests or BLM land -- but you still have forests in virtually every state and that’s important to maintain. And you’ve got private forests that need to be maintained.
So this is really not duplicative. This is really focusing. It’s very consistent with the President’s instruction, which is we have got to make this country more resilient, we have to make it be able to adapt and mitigate, because if we don’t, our economy is going to be impacted. Those 16 million people that are depending upon agriculture and forestry, they want to make sure that they continue to have a job because we’re continuing to produce and create new products.
Q I was just going to say, California being such a critical farming hub, are there any immediate steps that you can take to help alleviate the problem out there?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, we’ve taken steps this week and we’ll continue to take steps. Yesterday, we announced a $20 million resource directed to the most heavily stricken areas -- drought-stricken areas. That’s going to provide farmers and ranchers and dairymen the opportunity to do a better job of utilizing scarce water resources. It’s going to allow them to look at their water storage facilities, maybe upgrade them. It’s going to allow them to take a look at possible other forage opportunities. So that has been put in place.
Today, with the Department of Interior, we developed a smart-water program where $14 million of federal resources is being applied.
These hubs -- well, obviously, one of them is going to be located in Davis, California, and that obviously will be focused on specialty crop and the impact of drought. We’ll continue -- once the farm bill is signed by the President, there is disaster assistance that will allow us now to provide assistance to dairymen and to livestock operators to provide them resources that they didn’t have, that I couldn’t provide. That’s why this bill is so important to have gotten done now.
So those are three or four concrete steps that we have taken. Other agencies are looking at ways in which they can provide help and assistance. And our rural development folks are looking at the impact -- when agriculture suffers, it has a rippling impact and effect in small towns that are dependent on agriculture, in part. So we’re taking a look and making sure that our rural development programs, our loan programs are ready, willing and able to provide help and assistance if that’s necessary.
Q Mr. Secretary, are you seeing farms go under now because of the effects of climate change or is this something that’s focused on a future threat? I mean, is this something that the Department believes is happening now?
SECRETARY VILSACK: I can tell you without any hesitancy that because we didn’t have a good assessment and didn’t have good forecasting and didn’t have a disaster assistance program, that some of the livestock producers in the Dakotas, for example, just couldn’t make it. When that snowstorm hit, it didn’t wipe out just a few animals, it wiped out the entire operation. Nobody anticipated and expected that severe a storm that early. That’s one impact.
I can tell you that the folks who live in the Western part of the United States who have been dependent on timber and forestry are deeply concerned about the impact of the pine bark beetle and diseased trees. We have roughly 45 million acres of diseased trees because the pine bark beetle was not killed during harsh winters, as in the past. That’s having an impact. That’s making forest fires significantly more intense, and that’s creating not just the fire hazard but flooding hazards following the fire. So there are ramifications today that impact operators.
Q You’re convinced this is not just severe weather patterns, that this is the effects of climate change?
SECRETARY VILSACK: When you take a look at the intensity of the storms that we have seen recently and the frequency of them, the length of drought, combined with these snowstorms and the subzero weather that we’ve experienced, the combination of all those factors convinces me that the climate is changing. And it’s going to have its impact and will have its impact, and is having its impact on agriculture and forestry.
If we are not proactive, as the President has directed, we will find ourselves 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the road wishing we had done what we’re doing today; wishing we had assessed the risk; wishing we had created and identified the vulnerabilities; and wishing we had created programs and responses to those vulnerabilities to tamp down the impact and effect.
MR. CARNEY: Roger.
Q Mr. Secretary, agribusiness has a big stake in the stability of agriculture. Is there any thought being given to having a partnership formed between the government and agribusiness on floods, droughts, other kinds of research?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I would say two things. First of all, the President instructed internally within the federal government for us to work in a much more collaborative way, and that’s why he instructed us to put the drought resiliency taskforce together, which is allowing us now to respond more aggressively to the California drought situation. That’s internal.
These climate hubs will, as part of their mission, be partnering with the private sector, the non-profit sector and land-grant universities. They will assist us in identifying technologies -- could be biotechnology, could be seed technologies, it could be stewardship or conservation practices that are identified through the research. They will assist us in getting the message out to producers that you ought to think about doing X instead of Y. So there will be a tight partnership here.
And there is some accountability on our part. We will review these internally each year, and we’ll have a significant review every five years to make sure that they’re on mission and doing what we are asking them to do.
We’re very serious about this. We’re going to dedicate a lot of people-hours to this and a lot of resources, because it’s important.
Q And because of these programs, these hub programs here -- and this maybe requires a crystal ball on your part -- but could this change the face of agriculture as we know it?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think it could. I think it opens up new opportunities. And I think, frankly, what changes the face of agriculture in the immediate term is this new farm bill. When I made reference to the local and regional food systems and the bio-based economy and manufacturing new products, this opens up a whole new vista of economic opportunity that has not existed before. And this farm bill makes a historic investment in both of those things.
And so I’m excited about that. I have been in plants that have taken crop residue and turned it in a bottle that Coca-Cola is using to produce their water products. In Ohio the other day I saw a 3-D printing machine produce a skull that’s used by brain surgeons in brain surgery -- it was made from crops.
It’s a whole new day here. And the great thing about this is it can bring manufacturing into the rural communities. We’re seeing a rebirth of manufacturing in the last couple of years, which is great, but a lot of it is focused in urban and suburban areas. Now we have a component opportunity here with the resources of this farm bill and the direction of this farm bill to go out into rural areas and bring manufacturing back. And that’s a huge opportunity for us.
And it’s an opportunity for this reason -- and a lot of people don’t realize this -- but if you take a look at the people who actually produce most of what we grow, it’s about a million farmers. Of that number, 70 percent require all farm income to keep the farm. In other words, they’re having a harder time just on farming alone. It’s one of the reasons why out where I travel, the Affordable Care Act thing doesn’t get as much grief because people now see this as an opportunity to maybe not have to have themselves and their spouse working an off-farm job because most of the time it’s for health insurance.
Bringing a manufacturing opportunity into a community like that creates a chance for that farmer to substantially expand his market opportunity or her opportunity at higher value-added opportunities; not commodity prices, but ingredient prices. And it creates an opportunity for a son or a daughter or a spouse, if they wish, to work in a manufacturing job that’s a much higher-paying job than what’s being created in a lot of rural communities today.
So this farm bill is extraordinarily important. And unfortunately, the focus has been on crop insurance, which is important, and on SNAP, which is important. But there’s a whole lot in between that folks are missing, and it’s the whole lot of in between that I think creates just enormous opportunity.
MR. CARNEY: Couple more. In the back, and then Christi.
Q Mr. Secretary, you said you were happy with the farm bill, and yet twice you repeated the mantra “We’re not going to wait for Congress. We’re not going to wait for a law to be passed.” I mean, why do you feel the need to diss the Congress and the legislative process twice and yet praise the farm bill? You seem to be sending out a conflicting message.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I don’t think it’s a conflicting message at all. The President instructed us to work very closely with Congress to get a farm bill. He understood how important it was to rural America and to all of America. And I will say that we had a lot to do with the passage of this bill because of the President’s direction. We worked with Congress. As the President has said repeatedly, if there’s an opportunity to work with Congress, we will work with Congress -- and we did.
We’ve been waiting a while for Congress to act on climate. Fair enough; multiple reasons why they haven’t. But in the meantime, we’re going to take action because 51 percent of the land mass in the United States is a lot of land -- it’s over 1.2 billion acres of land, to be exact -- and it’s important for us to be really focused on making sure that our farmers and those who ranch and those who have forest are given every tool to be able to respond to adverse weather, which we’re seeing. And there is a negative economic impact if we don’t do this.
So I don’t think it’s inconsistent at all. I think we’re trying to work with Congress when we can. And when we can’t or they won’t, we’re going to continue to act. And that’s I think what the American public wants us to do.
MR. CARNEY: Christi.
Q Actually, that was my question. What legislative action in particular do you think would be helpful here?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I don’t know all of my sister agencies’ wish lists, but I would tell you this: One thing I would like to see is work on infrastructure.
Our ability to respond to climate, our ability to maximize our agricultural economy and our forestry depends to a certain extent on our ability to grow and raise things, which with reservoirs and lock-and-dam systems and rail systems and airports that are improved and ports that are improved, we can actually potentially grow more and we can actually get product to market more quickly. That would be something that I would hope Congress would do.
This is not in the climate area. But agriculture is faced with a serious workforce shortage, which is why we’re very interested in making sure that immigration reform happens. And we’ll work with Congress to help make that happen. In fact, we already have, by offering USDA -- the Department of Agriculture -- as a way of dealing with agricultural workers.
So there is a huge wish list here, but if it were up to me, I’d like to see some kind of mechanism to invest in infrastructure because we need it, and I’d like the security and safety of workforce, which is going to require immigration reform.
MR. CARNEY: Last one, Mike, and then we’ll let the Secretary go.
Q Mr. Secretary, you mentioned crop insurance. But a lot of critics of this bill say this is another missed opportunity. There’s a lot of waste in this bill. There are crops, there are special interests that are supported. It was a wasted opportunity for reform. And particularly, they talk about the sugar industry. When will that opportunity ever come? And does it not cost American consumers money to support these industries when they don’t need to be supported?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, the President was very clear when he campaigned for this office in 2006, 2007 and 2008, that he wanted to see an end to direct payments. This was a system which was very difficult to explain to ordinary folks when we were basically as a government spending money and sending checks to producers when crop prices were at all-time highs. When corn was selling for $8 a bushel, soybeans were at $15 a bushel, we were sending $4 billion of direct payments out all across the country. This bill ends direct payments. That is a significant reform.
I can remember speaking to the cotton growers my first speech as Secretary of Agriculture. I was bold enough to suggest that we needed to get rid of direct payments. I can’t tell you how much criticism and concern was expressed that that can’t happen, we’re too dependent on direct payments. That’s gone and that’s good.
The issue of crop insurance: We raise about $62 billion of product every year. That’s a huge risk. And the reality is that if we didn’t partner with farmers -- by the way, farmers pay premiums for crop insurance -- if we didn’t partner as a government with farmers, not a lot of farmers would be able to afford crop insurance because their premiums would be dramatically higher than they are today, which means that in the face of a California drought, in the face of livestock disaster in the Dakotas, in the face of what happened with Hurricane Sandy in Upstate New York, in the face of the drought of 2012 that devastated the Midwest -- as a government, we would have been confronted with a requirement and demand by Congress for a disaster bill that would have been substantially more expensive.
Actually, I’ll give Jay a chart that shows you in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when we didn’t have this kind of system, we were spending hundreds of billions of dollars -- hundreds of billions of dollars -- on disaster programs. Today, it’s at an all-time low in terms of what we’re actually spending in terms of government subsidies and assistance.
So there has been reform. There’s a reason for the crop insurance program. And I might point out that this administration renegotiated the standard reinsurance agreement with the insurance companies, saving $6 billion, which is on top of the $23 billion that sequester and this farm bill has saved from agriculture. That’s a total of $30 billion. So I’m happy to talk to folks about why it’s important to have crop insurance, that there is reform in this bill, and I think it’s a good balance.
Q Is sugar a sacred cow?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Is sugar a sacred cow?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s a sacred cow. I think there are a lot of folks who are asking questions about sugar and those are legitimate questions that should be asked. And at the end of the day, it’s not easy to put a farm bill together; it requires a coalition. And I think the Congress did the very best job they could under very difficult circumstances given the fact that this was a bill unlike any other farm bill where it wasn’t about adding additional money, it was about subtraction. And you know what, they subtracted between sequester and the bill, $23 billion. We added another $6 billion in crop insurance savings. That’s $30 billion. That’s a good start.
Thank you, all.
MR. CARNEY: Well, thank you for hearing what Secretary Vilsack had to say. We’ll go back to regular order. Nedra.
Q Since we aren’t going to be allowed in the meeting today with the Senate Democrats, can you just tell us what the President’s message is to them and are there things that he is hoping to hear back from them?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Nedra, I think the message the President has for Senate Democrats is very similar to the message he had for House Democrats yesterday. It’s the message that he has been delivering to members of Congress and others around the country about looking for ways that we can work together to expand opportunity and make sure that hard work is rewarded, that folks who take responsibility for themselves and their families are given access to opportunity. That’s the sort of overall thematic approach that the President is taking to the work we can do this year, both with Congress but also with governors and state legislators and mayors, and in partnership with the private sector -- you’ve seen examples of this already play out in the last days and weeks. So that’s what he’ll be talking about.
He’ll certainly be talking about, as he did with House Democrats, the ways that they can advance the priorities that they share -- he, the President, and Senate Democrats, legislatively because this is Congress. And I think that goes to the point that Secretary Vilsack just spoke about in response to a question. This reinforces that the President’s approach is not an either/or proposition. It’s not either we do everything through Congress or he does everything he can through the use of his executive authority. He believes he’ll do everything he can on both tracks and where Congress is willing to cooperate, as Congress was in the farm bill, in the budget bill, in the omnibus, then we can get some stuff done on behalf of the American people that’s good, that’s bipartisan, that’s effective, and that expands opportunity and rewards hard work.
Where Congress won’t act or where the President has unique powers because of his office to act in ways that Congress couldn’t even if it wanted to, the President will take advantage of that in the authority that he has. And you’ve seen that in the way he gathered commitments from the private sector to address the long-term unemployment problem and the skills summit with college universities that we had here at the White House earlier this year. Those are the kinds of approaches that the President is going to take, and it’s not because Congress won’t act at all, it’s because there are opportunities available to him to advance an agenda that helps the American people.
Q He needs Congress on trade. Is that on the agenda? Does he plan to push on that?
MR. CARNEY: We have been very clear about the fact that getting trade agreements with our Asian partners and European partners are priorities for the President. And it’s a topic that is frequently discussed. Again, I can’t predict what will be discussed in this particular meeting, but we’ve been clear for a long time now about the need for us to -- in the example of Asia, this is the fastest-growing region in the world. It’s the region of the world that presents the greatest amount of economic opportunity. It’s a region of the world that if we do not maintain our competitive edge in, we will cede that competitive edge to China. We need to act to make sure that those markets are open to American exports, and that in by opening those markets to American exports we are creating good-paying American jobs here at home. So that’s something we have to do.
Q It just seems surprising that didn’t come up in the meeting with Senator Reid after --
MR. CARNEY: The fallacy of the reporting on that -- the idea -- I mean, the President speaks with Senator Reid all the time and the White House speaks with Senator Reid all the time. That meeting was about -- I mean, I think Senator Reid spoke about the subject matter in that meeting but -- that meeting was with Senator Bennet -- and these are conversations we have all the time.
As I said last week, anybody who was surprised that Senator Reid held the views that he expressed on trade hasn’t been covering Senator Reid and doesn’t know Senator Reid. So we believe that it’s important to continue to make the case and to work towards ensuring that we can get trade agreements that protect the American workers, protect the environment, and advance the American economy through a growth in exports.
Q Finally, Senator Begich said he doesn’t want President Obama to come campaign for him. I’m wondering if that’s a sentiment that the White House has been hearing from other swing-state Democrats and what kind of campaign travel we can expect in some of these swing states.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have a preview of the President’s schedule for the year, but I can tell you the President will, as he already has, be actively involved in assisting Democrats up for reelection or running for office in the Senate and the House, as you would expect. And the fact is, that’s because these candidates and these incumbents share the President’s priorities when it comes to -- on the vast number of issues when it comes to taking steps to expand opportunity, reward hard work, invest in an economy so that it grows not just now but in the future.
So he’ll be doing everything he can to assist Democrats as he already has.
Q Any response to Senator Begich who doesn’t share his priorities, it sounds like, from what he saying in some way?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not sure about that. I think there’s a question about -- I would just say that the President is assisting Democrats in ways that they ask him to and obviously in ways that he can as President.
Q And along those lines, you had the meeting Monday, yesterday, and now today. Why shouldn’t we see this as an effort to craft a strategy for the midterms?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think, again, the President met with Senator Reid and Senator Bennet. The meetings with the Senate caucus and the House caucus are about the President’s and their priorities moving forward in 2014. Those are priorities that can be acted on in Congress. There’s two things out there that offer a real opportunity for Congress to demonstrate that it care about expanding opportunity for the American people, creating jobs and rewarding hard work, and that’s extending emergency unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage. Those are two things that I’m sure the President will, as he has with Democrats already, discuss today and that present an opportunity for Congress to act on behalf of the American people and the middle class. So we obviously hope to see that action.
Q On Syria, the Syrians missed another deadline for turning over chemical weapons. Are you worried about this? Is the effort in danger of failing?
MR. CARNEY: I think we’ve made very clear that the Assad regime has a responsibility to live up to the commitments it made. And those governments and nations that were instrumental in bringing about the agreement by the Syrian regime to give up its weapons for destruction need to fulfill their obligations. And I would note that Russia has said it expects the Assad regime to deliver a substantial portion of its chemical weapons stockpile in the relatively near future, and we obviously believe that’s very important.
Russia has a lot at stake here. Russia has staked a lot of credibility in the role that Russia played in helping bring about this agreement. Remember, Syria never acknowledged -- in fact, refuted suggestions that it had a chemical weapons stockpile. And, in fact, the world knew that it had one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles. And now it has acknowledged that that stockpile exists and agreed to dispose of it. And Russia played an important role with the United States in helping bring about that agreement, and all of our partners on this matter are going to continue to insist that the Assad regime fulfill its obligations.
Q President Obama has referred to President Clinton as the “Secretary of Explaining Stuff.” And President Clinton will be over at that retreat as well today. Is he there to help the party explain stuff in this midterm election year?
MR. CARNEY: You’d have to ask President Clinton about what his remarks might contain. I think he obviously remains a prominent figure within the party, and I’m sure that members look forward to hearing from him.
Q And I know you’ve been asked about this by Steve and Nedra, but it’s sort -- isn’t it kind of stretching things a bit to expect people not to read into these meetings that there is some midterm election planning going on?
MR. CARNEY: But wait, but I thought the whole tenor of the conversation, the questions, the insistence that I was obfuscating about what the nature of the meeting between Senator Reid and the President was going to be about; then it turns out it wasn’t about that at all. So both can’t be true.
I think that obviously the President --
Q But this is on his mind, the midterm --
MR. CARNEY: He’s the head of his party -- of course it’s on his mind. But it is far from the only thing on his mind. What is principally on his mind is the opportunity available to us and available to him to advance an agenda that expands opportunity and rewards hard work; that says if you’re out there working hard on behalf of yourself and your family, doing right by your community, you should be rewarded for that. You should have access to opportunity. And that’s what the agenda the President laid out in the State of the Union envisions, and that’s what he intends to act on with Congress and using the powers available to him when Congress won't act.
Q Does the President want to hear from some of these Democrats in the Senate who have been making some of these statements, like Senator Begich? There have been others -- Senator Landrieu would like to see Keystone pass right away. Is this is a bit of a listening session as well?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I think as others have noted, the President has been having conversations with members quite a lot in recent days and weeks, in the run-up to the State of the Union address and in the aftermath of the State of the Union address. The fulcrum which that timeline is balanced is the State of the Union address, which wasn’t an election speech, it was a policy agenda speech. And that’s what he is principally talking about with members of Congress. That’s what he did that last night, that’s what he’ll do this afternoon. And he’ll continue to do that because that’s what’s on his mind, which is not to take away from the fact that of course he’ll be playing a significant role in assisting Democrats come election time.
But right now he is focused principally on ways to move this agenda forward, and I think you’ve seen it in a wide variety of ways in recent days and weeks. And the opportunity he has on Friday to sign the farm bill is a way of reminding folks that this is not an either/or proposition. This is find areas where Congress is willing to work in a bipartisan way to advance the interest of the American economy and the American people; act on them, deliver on that possibility, that potential with Congress; and then use every other power you have as President to advance the same agenda. That’s what he’s doing.
Q And just very quickly, getting back to the discussion on the CBO report and the effects of the Affordable Care Act, at the House Budget Committee today -- you’re probably aware of this -- Douglas Elmendorf, the head of the CBO, originally said that the Affordable Care Act creates a disincentive for people to work. He was asked about that later on and clarified that and said, well, it’s less of an incentive for work. Getting back to the discussion, I know that the fact-checkers and so forth have lined up with the White House in saying, no, there aren’t jobs being cut as a result of the Affordable Care Act, but what about that component that there might be a disincentive for work?
MR. CARNEY: Well, here’s what I’d say. First of all, I want to commend the many news organizations that in a very forthright manner issued corrections to initial headlines that misrepresented on a factual basis what the CBO reported. Those headlines continue to be spouted by Republicans and some networks as fact, but they’re just false. As you heard in testimony today that you just cited, that is not what the report says. The report says that in addition to substantially cutting the deficit, in addition to spurring job creation and economic growth in the near term, in addition to ensuring millions of Americans, the Affordable Care Act in later years will provide freedom, choice and opportunity to Americans that they did not previously have.
It will allow people who are locked in jobs because they desperately needed the health insurance and couldn’t get it any other way to have the peace of mind of being able to get affordable, quality health insurance through the exchanges instead and to start a business perhaps or to stay at home and take care of kids instead of having to work. I think Secretary Vilsack just talked about rural families. This is something that he sees all over the country in agricultural areas, where the income from the farm is not enough to sustain income that would allow them to purchase insurance so that one -- a member of the family has to go work simply to get health insurance. That has consequences. That means that person can’t find a different job or start a business. That means that father or mother can’t stay home with the kids.
So it is remarkable to me -- and this has been pretty well commented on in the wake of the report -- that a Republican Party that used to herald freedom, choice and opportunity, that used to call for specifically an end to job lock created by the need for health care and health insurance is now finding in this report, which is overwhelmingly positive when it comes to its assessment of the Affordable Care Act, a political slogan that happens to be factually challenged.
So I think everybody has learned a lot in the last 24 hours about what the report actually says, versus what it was said to have reported. I just wish all news organizations would get to the facts.
Q A couple of quick follow-ups. First, Steve’s question about the Syria chemical weapons issues. I think the question was, is the White House concerned that that agreement is falling apart?
MR. CARNEY: Absolutely not. We’re not concerned it’s falling apart. We’re concerned -- or we are ensuring and making our views known that Syria must abide by its commitments. And that is a view that --
Q And you believe they will?
MR. CARNEY: I believe that they must. I believe that the regime must. We have heard from the Russian government that it is their expectation that the Assad regime will be delivering a substantial portion of its chemical weapons supplies and equipment in the relatively near future. We certainly expect and hope that that’s the case. And I noted that Russia obviously has a great deal at stake here when it comes to Syria fulfilling, the regime fulfilling its responsibilities.
Q And on the issue of trade, you eloquently spoke about the need for the trade promotion authority and these agreements with Asia. How important is it for the White House for this to happen soon? Can you afford to wait until after the midterm elections, as some are suggesting on the Hill?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I don’t have the privilege of scheduling votes. All I know is that the President has --
Q Midterm elections are months and months and months away. I’m not asking you a schedule. I’m saying, how important is it for this to get done in a short time frame? Are you willing to wait until the end of the year for this to happen?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t think I get to decide --
Q Well, what’s the preference here?
MR. CARNEY: -- or the White House gets to decide. I think that what the President is committed to is making the case about why these trade agreements are good for the economy and good for American workers; why these trade agreements will protect American workers and the environment; why especially when it comes to the TPP and Asia, this is about -- this has huge implications for our economic competitiveness in the 21st century. And we’re going to steadily make that case.
I can't predict the legislative calendar. What I can say with great clarity is what the President’s position is, understanding that there is a diversity of opinion on this matter in both parties. And that’s why it’s important to focus on the facts, look specifically at the agreements, talk to members about the upside of moving forward, and then continuing that effort.
Q But is the President making the case that this needs to be done soon? Or is he saying, hey, whenever you get around to it, if it’s the end of the year, that’s fine? Is he making the case that this is an urgent priority, something that needs to be done on a quick timeline, or the timeline doesn’t matter?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’d say two things. I’ve never known Congress to act quickly on almost anything, A, so I would hesitate to suggest that we could get Congress to act urgently on almost anything. We have an urgent need for unemployment insurance to be extended. We have an emergency need for more than a million families out there, and that is yet to happen.
What I can tell you is that what the President can control is the foundation of the arguments for what he believes is the right thing to do here, and he’s going to continue to make that case.
Q But it sounds to me like you’re saying the White House has no objection for this waiting until after the elections.
MR. CARNEY: You can try to put as many words into my mouth as you like. That's not what I’m saying. I’m saying that we’re going to work with Congress to make the case, and obviously the legislative calendar is set by Congress. We’re going to press for what we believe is the right priority.
Q And one last thing on Keystone. Former Secretary of Energy Chu said that this decision on the Keystone pipeline is a matter of politics not a matter of science. Do you agree with that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I disagree with that. I can tell you that there has been a lot of politics around this. And perhaps that's what he’s referring to. I think we saw Congress take a very political approach -- Republicans in Congress take a very political approach that then precipitated a delay in the consideration of the pipeline.
What is happening and what has been happening is a process that has been conducted according to the rule book, according to established procedure by previous administrations of both parties. We have now reached a point where has been an environmental impact statement issued by the State Department, opening up a timeframe in which the public and other agencies comment on that EIS and are heard from, and those views are incorporated. The State Department continues to own the process. And that's the way it should be.
In fact, the process is designed to be insulated from politics. That doesn’t prevent people from trying to politicize it, but it does insulate the experts from the politics that have obviously surrounded this issue.
Q Thank you, Jay. On Keystone, another -- I guess it’s the day for former Secretaries to weigh in. Ken Salazar, the former Interior Secretary, this morning gave a speech in Houston at an energy conference. And he not only said that he thinks that Keystone should be built, but he went on to say that on the issue of fracking, he thinks it’s “safe,” and said, “There’s not a single case where fracking has created an environmental problem for anyone. We need to make sure that story is told.” My question being, do you agree or disagree with that?
MR. CARNEY: On the second part?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I haven’t seen those remarks, so it’s hard for me to comment specifically on them. The President believes that natural gas is an important part of our future and that the methods that we use to extract it need to be safe and secure. We believe that they are and can be, but we obviously have to take steps to ensure that's the case.
So I don't know -- I’m not qualified to judge a statement about what impacts there have been. What I can tell you is what the policy approach that this administration has taken is.
Q On Keystone he specifically said, “Is it better for us to get the oil from our good neighbor from the north or to be bringing it from someplace in the Middle East?” Is that a view that the White House would agree with?
MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is that under this President, for the first time in 20 years, we are producing more oil in the United States of America than we are importing. That is a fact, and that is a big deal. And it has been true now for several months and will continue to be true because in no small measure of the all-of-the-above approach the President has taken to our energy needs. And that approach includes renewables and concludes the historic standards car rule -- standards that the President put in place for mileage that reduced carbon emissions, reduced our dependency on oil in general, and therefore reduced our need to import foreign oil. That's good for our national security. It’s good for our economy. That's the approach that the President is going to take.
The assessments about impacts related to that pipeline are being made by experts, and that process is underway. And as I just said, there’s a lot of effort to politicize it, to pull it out of the framework that exists precisely because these decisions need to be isolated from politics. And the President’s intent is to let that process play out the way it has in the past under Republican administrations and Democratic administrations. And we’re midstream. A milestone has been crossed with the release of the EIS, but we’re not -- the process isn’t completed yet. And until it is, we’re going to keep it insulated in the way it should be.
Q On the CBO report, you’re correct that the CBO is saying that unemployment actually on jobs may come down because there’s demand being created. As people go on Medicaid they have more money to spend, et cetera. But is the President comfortable with the CBO, which is seen as an umpire by both parties, saying that his signature achievement creates a disincentive to work? Not that it’s killing jobs, but that it creates a disincentive?
MR. CARNEY: The President is comfortable that, much as Social Security did and continues to do, much as Medicare did and continues to do, a program which provides greater security, freedom -- including freedom from fear -- is a good thing for our economy and the American people.
There’s been a lot of false reporting and some news outlets continue to falsely report on what the CBO said. The fact of the matter is, the opportunity created by affordable, quality health insurance allows families in America to make a decision about how they will work and if they will work. And there is no question if we did away with it, in addition to jacking up the deficit -- something Republicans aren’t supposed to want to do -- in addition to throwing a lot of people off health insurance, we would add folks to the labor force.
The same would be true if we abolished Social Security, okay? But what’s happening with the Affordable Care Act is that you are, in the near term, according to the same CBO report that Republicans like to cite, we’re actually -- the ACA is adding impetus to economic growth and job creation, and therefore --
Q That was the premise of my question when I said this.
MR. CARNEY: Okay. Right -- in the near term. It is also providing the freedom, opportunity and choice that Republicans, including the Heritage Foundation, not so long ago used to say was very important and related specifically to the job lock caused by people’s need for health insurance and their fear of leaving a job because they couldn’t afford to.
There was an interesting statistic I saw in relation to this just earlier today that said that folks in America who are, say, 63, waiting to get on Medicare, are far less likely to start a business than those who are 65 because they have the security of health insurance provided by Medicare. So there’s a little mini explosion in entrepreneurship at 65. Why? Probably not because they had great ideas at 65 that they didn’t have at 63, but because they have that security. That’s good for the economy.
And what I think Jason Furman noted yesterday and I need to reemphasize today is the CBO clearly states that it did not take into account very important factors that influence even that labor participation figure, and that is the dramatic economic beneficial impact of reduced growth in health care costs. The dramatic beneficial impact of reduced absenteeism, and reduced incidents of depression and injury and illnesses that come from additional people being covered by health insurance.
These are positive benefits that are a strong countervailing force against even that particular development that CBO identified or projected. And if you take all of that into account, it reinforces what the CBO report says, which is that the ACA is benefitting our economy, it’s providing access to health insurance to millions of people who didn’t have it, and is giving families across the country and individuals across the country the freedom and choice and opportunity that they lacked before it passed. I don’t feel strongly about this at all. (Laughter.)
Q Following up briefly on that, I want to talk about the budget deficits. I know over the next couple of years they’re going to drop I think $514 billion was the estimation for 2014, $470-something billion for 2015. It’s more ominous after 2017 because of baby boomers retiring and the shrinking labor force. Isn’t another force at play there, however -- the Obamacare system, which then does reduce the labor force in some form in that some people may be reducing their hours?
MR. CARNEY: Peter, you clearly didn’t read the report, which clearly states, as the CBO has previously estimated that --
Q Jay, let’s be fair. We’ve read as much of the report as we can and we’ve listened to more than enough briefings on this. But what -- I think we all disagree though that if there are fewer people working fewer -- if fewer people are working fewer hours -- or more people are working fewer hours, by design, explain in simple terms why that doesn’t provide less tax revenue and somehow doesn’t hurt the economy, if fewer hours are being worked.
MR. CARNEY: That’s not what you -- first of all, let me just correct you. You asked about the deficit. As the CBO reported yesterday, consistent with what it’s reported in the past, the CBO projects that the Affordable Care Act will reduce the deficit by a trillion dollars. In other words, you abolish the ACA and therefore don’t have the effect that you’re talking about in terms of people choosing not to work or reducing their hours, and you jack up the deficit by a trillion dollars.
So let’s just be clear about the impact on the deficit, okay? The CBO said yesterday, again, as it has in the past, that the Affordable Care Act reduces the deficit over the 20-year window by a trillion bucks, one.
Two, when it comes to the economic impact, as the head of the CBO said today and as the report clearly states, there are other factors when it comes to labor force participation and hours and its impact on job creation that are not accounted for in the study. Jason talked about this yesterday. And I think one hugely significant one is the historic reduction in health care inflation that we’ve seen. We’ve had the slowest rate of health care cost growth in 50 years since the Affordable Care Act was passed, which directly contradicts the predictions of those who opposed the Affordable Care Act, just saying. But it’s out there, it’s a fact. And that has enormous positive economic benefits for our businesses, for individuals.
I mean, if you’re projecting -- if you were, five years ago, somebody responsible for health care costs for employer-provided health insurance at a major company, and you had to project what those costs would be for the next five years, you are going to base it on the consensus estimates on what the growth in health care costs were going to be for the next five or ten years. You have found out in the interim that you have saved a bunch of money because, as it turns out, the growth has been much slower and the Affordable Care Act has contributed significantly to that reduction in growth. That in turn has significant positive economic benefit on growth and job creation.
So again, I think it is impossible to read the CBO report and not recognize that it contains point-by-point rebuttals of a lot of the critiques that we have heard over the years from Republicans about what the Affordable Care Act would do to the economy. The CBO report says specifically that contrary to everything Republicans have said, the Affordable Care Act is not and will not significantly reduce -- cause employers to reduce hours, to throw people into part-time employment.
Q The point that Paul Ryan, among others, reinforced, as you guys indicated today. But he also said that it encourages Americans, in his words, “not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work.” What’s the White House’s position on that language at the bottom -- for those at the bottom, not those approaching age 65.
MR. CARNEY: I understand that the report, for those who actually see it for what it is, is complicated if you still want to be an opponent of the Affordable Care Act.
Q But isn’t there some benefit to someone who makes not so much money to say, you know what, I’m not going to work as much because I’m benefitting, I’m basically getting new income in the form of subsidies?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, what I would say, Peter, is that the benefit of having the freedom and choice and opportunity that health insurance security provides through the Affordable Care Act outweighs those considerations, because if you’re somebody who is locked in a job and has to keep that job in order to make sure that your family has health care, but you either can’t stand the job, or you have a great idea to start a business but you can’t go out and start it because you’d lose health care if you quit your job, this creates the opportunity for more entrepreneurship that did not exist prior to the Affordable Care Act.
That should be something that conservatives celebrate, free-market enthusiasts celebrate. I mean, we certainly do. It’s great for entrepreneurs. It’s great for those farm families and others where you have the mother and father working full time in part because only one of them gets health insurance that they need for their family and now that’s no longer something -- they now have the choice to continue working. To go to the point that we talked about yesterday, this isn’t forcing people to give up their 60-hour-a-week job if they want to keep it -- because as the report clearly states, the Affordable Care Act does not cause businesses to shed jobs -- again, contradicting the accusation that critics have been making for years.
Q On Syria quickly, with another deadline passing today without action by the Syrians right now, I want to get a sense of whether any punitive actions are presently in the works.
MR. CARNEY: On the chemical weapons issue?
MR. CARNEY: I really don’t have anything to add except that we’re watching very closely and working with our international partners, including Russia --
Q I guess, how long do we give them? I mean, how open are we? Where’s the next red line, so to speak?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think Russia has obviously a huge stake in this and is the primary interlocutor with the Syrian regime, and they announced to the world that they expect the regime to deliver a substantial portion of its stockpile in the relatively near future. We’ll watch to see that that happens.
Q On lighter notes, the Olympics begin for a lot of athletes tomorrow in Sochi. I’m curious if the President has had any conversations with, among others, the flag bearer, Todd Lodwick, or any of the other athletes who begin their competitions tomorrow.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t know of any conversations he’s had with athletes in the run-up to the Olympics, at least certainly not in the recent past. He’s, I think, like everyone who loves to watch the Games, he’s looking forward to them getting underway and is very proud of the athletes that will represent the United States, very proud of the diversity that they represent, because that is such a strength in our country, and looks forward to many of our athletes bringing home gold, silver, and bronze.
Q Has he spoken to Billie Jean King, who is not going to be traveling?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think he -- I’m not sure that he has. I don’t think he has. He has spoken to her in the relatively recent past, I know ,because I saw her here -- I don’t know, sometime late last year. Well, I don’t know that she met with him, but I know she has spoken with him. I don’t know that she’s spoken with him about the Olympics or the delegation. We did announce that because of a serious illness in her family she is not able to be part of the delegation for the opening ceremonies but we’re very grateful that Caitlin Cahow, who is going to participate in the closing ceremonies, is going to take her place.
Q Question on the smoking announcement that came out of the White House this morning.
MR. CARNEY: Which one?
Q The CVS decision about cigarette smoke. I’m just -- it was interesting to me that the statement from the White House didn’t have anything personal from the President and I’m just wondering if there’s anything further, as a former smoker, that he has a personal interest in making sure that smokers have different choices when they go to a drugstore.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t know that this was a personal matter. I think that as somebody who used to smoke and used to -- at least when I was living in the United States, buy a lot of cigarettes at CVS, I think it’s a good thing, I think it’s a great thing. And we obviously reflected that view --
Q Is that where you bought them?
MR. CARNEY: I did a lot. So we obviously think this is an important decision because of the impact that smoking can have on the nation’s health and on especially American children. So the President is, like I, a reformed smoker, but -- and I think he recognizes like everyone who has quit recognizes, it’s not an easy thing to do but it’s the right thing to do for your own health, for your family, and for the nation’s health. So I would point you to the statement for why we think that is a very welcome development.
Q Did the President have anything to do with that? Was that a pen and phone call to CVS to consider that? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to CVS. I think that they should be commended for the decision they’re taking.
Q One on NSA, one on Olympics. On NSA, is the White House concerned that the NSA reported that they spied on German
German Chancellor Schroeder when he was chancellor, and that this may further hurt the bilateral relations with Germany?
MR. CARNEY: As you know, Andrei, we don’t comment on specific allegations and reports of that nature. I can tell you that the President has delivered a pretty big speech on this issue that included his -- the reforms that he wanted to see instituted and the changes that he is instituting in our signal intelligence. So when it comes to some of the issues that have been raised in some of the reporting as relates to our bilateral relationship with individual countries, those are issues that we take up directly through traditional diplomatic channels with those countries and including at the level of president to chancellor, as you know, with the President and Chancellor Merkel. But I don’t have anything specific on a specific report like that.
Q And on the Olympics, yesterday the president of the International Olympic Committee made an interesting observation that some politicians rejected an invitation that they don’t have. And reporters who covered the speech assumed he was referring, among others, to President Obama. So my question is, does President Obama have an invitation to attend the Olympics?
MR. CARNEY: I didn’t see those remarks. I can tell you that the President, like so many Americans, looks forward to watching the Games and is very proud of the delegation that is representing the United States at both the opening and closing ceremonies. Thanks all very much.
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