U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Monday that a link between federal crop insurance and conservation compliance “just isn’t going to happen” in any new farm bill to be debated after the November election.

“I’ve talked with the (congressional) leadership and members, and there just isn’t support for it,” Vilsack said of proposals to make conservation and environmental rules compliance mandatory for farmers to qualify for federally subsidized crop insurance.

But Craig Cox, Midwest vice president for the Environmental Working Group, said of Vilsack’s assessment: “That’s just not correct.”

Cox noted that the Senate version of the farm bill passed in September still contains the conservation rider. “I’m not a vote-counter, but I think we can get the votes in the House,” Cox said.

Vilsack, meeting with Des Moines Register editors, said the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives has deliberately bottled up the farm bill so it can impose reductions in farm programs deeper than the $23 billion taken in the Senate bill.

The conservation question has hung over the bill because the likely end of federal direct payments to farmers, which contained the conservation lever, would leave the USDA and other federal agencies without the force of law. The crop insurance section in the farm bill hasn’t had a conservation compliance requirement since 1996.

“The feeling is that some type of voluntary, incentive-based conservation system would work just as well,” said Vilsack.

Cox and other environmentalists, most notably the Izaak Walton League, have argued that taxpayers deserve some kind of mandatory conservation in return for the $1.3 billion in federal subsidies directed annually at Iowa farmers.