June 15, 2017
On Tuesday, June 13, shortly after appropriators received a letter from nearly 600 organizations, businesses, and local governments opposing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) plan to eliminate its Rural Development Mission Area, the Secretary of Agriculture returned to Capitol Hill to once again defend his plans for a Departmental reorganization. This week, the Secretary was before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, which along with its analog in the House, determines discretionary funding levels for USDA and its programs.
This hearing, which normally serves as an opportunity for the Secretary to promote and defend the budget priorities of the President, took on a markedly different tone and covered myriad issues, including proposed cuts to voluntary conservation programs and research programs, Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL), and of course the proposed reorganization of USDA. A number of Senators, including the Subcommittee’s Ranking Member, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), asked pointed questions about the Departmental reorganization and the elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development.
Interest in Rural Development Changes Remains High
As he did at the May 25 House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Secretary Perdue continued to defend his plan to eliminate the Under Secretary for Rural Development position and the Rural Development Mission Area.
The hearing started with Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven (R-ND), Ranking Member Merkley, and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) expressing their desire to hear more from the Secretary about his reorganization plans and how he would stay true to his professed commitment to rural development.
Senator Merkley questioned Secretary Perdue on the fact that he had moved forward with the first steps of his reorganization plan (by hiring a new assistant to replace the Rural Development Under Secretary) two days prior to the end of a public comment period on the reorganization. The public comment period, which closed yesterday, was at least nominally meant to allow a wide range of stakeholders to submit testimony on the proposed reorganization, and typical good government practices would suggest that USDA should have waiting to make major decisions until well after it had collected and considered all of the comments. Last month, Senator Merkley joined a group of 29 Senators on a letter expressing concerns over the elimination of USDA’s Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary. Regarding USDA plan for implementing the reorganization, the Senators’ letter stated:
We are disappointed that USDA plans to implement the reorganization even before public comments are due, suggesting that USDA has no real plan to consider these comments and make any changes based on the comments.
Decisions by federal agencies on topics with serious consequences for Americans, such as the reorganization of USDA, need to be made in a transparent manner that considers the input and recommendations of stakeholders, including those submitting public comments and the 578 groups, businesses, and local governments that signed on to Tuesday’s letter. If the Secretary is interested in making “good customer service” a core tenant of USDA, proper consideration should be given to the thoughts and concerns of constituents and lawmakers.
NSAC encourages congressional appropriators to support the restoration of the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary, and to oppose the proposed cuts to Rural Development funding in FY 2018.
Bipartisan Opposition to Cuts
The second major theme of the hearing was President Trump’s proposed FY 2018 budget. The President’s budget, if approved, would reduce Rural Development funding by 26 percent, eliminate all funding for the Rural Business Cooperative Service, limit funding for conservation planning, and make deep cuts to sustainable agriculture research and farm loan programs. The budget request also included several proposals for the next farm bill, including requests to eliminate farm bill mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Specialty Crop Block Grants, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
In most cases, the Senators showed bipartisan concern with the President’s proposed cuts, and Secretary Perdue declined to endorse or denounce them. The Secretary also pointed out that he had little influence over the budget because it was written before his nomination and confirmation.
Secretary Perdue did, however, indicate on several occasions that he wants to “right size” the USDA budget; though he also indicated that if congressional appropriators provide him more money than the budget requests, he will spend it.
Several members of the Committee, including Chairman Hoeven, Ranking Member Merkley, and Senators Tester, Tom Udall (D-NM), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Thad Cochran (R-MS) expressed concern about specific cuts proposed in the President’s budget.
In his opening statement, Senator Merkley highlighted the important role that a President’s budget request can play in setting the tone for appropriations decisions:
“I have noted before that although many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle believe that a budget is dead on arrival, almost regardless of the President who provides it, it is still a reflection of the President’s priorities.” (23 min, 17 sec)
Senator Moran pointed out how the proposed appropriations cuts to Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), along with the proposal to eliminate CSP in the next farm bill, will harm efforts to support voluntary conservation:
“That technical assistance is hugely important in voluntary conservation…the opportunity for landowners, farmer, and ranchers to voluntary enter into programs and conduct there farming and ranching operations in ways that enhance the environmental quality of the land, air, and water is the direction that I think are important for us to pursue.” (1 hr, 40 min)
Senator Baldwin pointed out how communities in Wisconsin have used Rural Development programs. One community that she highlighted had used Rural Development funds to rebuild its drinking water infrastructure after discovering the system had been plagued by leaks. The proposed elimination of funding for drinking and wastewater infrastructure could threaten other rural communities’ ability to provide their residents safe water.
“While I hear the Administration talk about helping rural communities being a shared goal, the budget we have just seen suggests otherwise.” (1 hr, 18 min)
Senator Udall addressed the proposed elimination of 5,200 employee positions from USDA offices around the country, noting how this kind of immense staff reducing would directly harm farmers’ ability to access USDA resources such as conservation assistance.
“The [staffing] cuts will make it extremely difficult if not impossible for rural and frontier communities to successfully access USDA’s programs at the Farm Service Agency, NRCS [Natural Resources Conversation Service], and Rural Development.” (1 hr, 08 min)
NSAC appreciates the Senators’ support for voluntary conservation programs, Rural Development, and for keeping USDA programs and agencies adequately staffed so that they can meet the needs of America’s farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. We will continue to work with our members, allies, and champions in Congress on these issues as the appropriations process moves forward.
Other Issues of Note
Several other issues of note were discussed at the hearing, including the potential for resurrecting Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) for beef. Senators Tester and Merkley raised this issue in light of the recent deal that the U.S. reached with China for the importation of beef, which will require traceability of the cattle and beef.
Several members also inquired about the Secretary’s thoughts on the federal crop insurance program. Though he generally expressed his support, the Secretary reiterated his view that the program needs to be “right sized,” and that farmers should not expect to receive more back than they pay in each year.
“We have got to understand that insurance is just that,” said the Secretary. “When there is tragedy, when there is drought, when there is flood, when there is hale, we need a safety net to call upon, but no longer can with think of insurance as in investment, we don’t invest a dollar in insurance and expect to get $1.10 back in that year.” (36 min)
Finally, the subject of the pace of nominations for the 15 Senate confirmed positions at USDA was raised. Secretary Perdue expressed frustration with the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics, who he blamed for holding up the pace of his nominations; some of the Senators echoed his frustration and desire for a quicker pace. No USDA nominations are currently pending before the Senate, but the Secretary confirmed after the hearing that six nominations have been forwarded to the White House from USDA.
The House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees typically hold a series of hearings to examine the Administration’s budget request in any particular year. After the USDA Secretary and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Administrator testify, USDA under secretaries typically appear before the Subcommittees to defend their respective portions of the budget request. However, because no under secretaries have been named or confirmed by the Senate, the Subcommittees may not hold further hearings before they complete work on their FY 2018 bills. Stay tuned for more information and analysis in the coming weeks.