May 18, 2017
Last week the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) reported on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to reorganize the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by eliminating the Rural Development Mission Area and moving the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) from the Natural Resources and Environment Mission Area to a newly created “Farm Production and Conservation” Mission Area shared by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Risk Management Association (RMA).
Today Secretary Perdue was the star witness at a House Agriculture Committee hearing, where Representatives shared several questions and concerns over the proposed reorganization. Following is a summary of the hearing’s major themes and a brief NSAC analysis of the event and Secretary Perdue’s responses.
Rural Development Gets Major Attention
When grilled on what many Members rightfully saw as the demotion of Rural Development (RD) from a core mission area to an “office,” the Secretary stuck to his earlier talking points, claiming the reorganization would “elevate” the Department’s focus on rural issues. He gave multiple responses to what the new head of RD would be called (as a USDA-subcabinet mission area it is currently staffed by an under secretary), and at one point asserted that the position would be filled by an Assistant Secretary. The problem with this is that USDA is limited by law to three Assistant Secretaries, which it currently already has – congressional relations, civil rights, and department administration. Hence, if there were to be an Assistant Secretary for Rural Development, Congress would need to propose and pass legislation to create that position. Undersecretaries, however, are not limited by law and do not require congressional action.
He also suggested that this new Assistant Secretary would have to be confirmed by the Senate, an assertion that would be true if this were an actual Assistant Secretary position (Assistant Secretaries are confirmed by the Senate); however, an “Assistant to the Secretary” – as Perdue has previously referred to the position – would not rise to the level of requiring Senate confirmation.
Perdue also made the point that the position would have more direct access to the Secretary through an “open door” policy. He suggested that USDA Under Secretaries’ access to him is limited, and that most communication goes through the Deputy Secretary (the number two position at USDA). However, the history of the Department and relationship between the Secretary and Under Secretaries would suggest the opposite – Under Secretaries in fact wield considerable influence, and can already easily communicate directly with the Secretary. In fact, the seven current Under Secretaries form USDA’s powerful subcabinet, which is chaired by the Secretary – further evidence of the importance of the role of Under Secretary within the Department.
The current RD has a combined staff of over 5,000, a loan portfolio of over $200 billion, and supervision over three unique agencies. It is therefore exceedingly difficult to imagine how a single Assistant Secretary or Assistant to the Secretary and office, even if created by an act of Congress, could take on the workload currently done by three skilled USDA agency Administrators, all of whom report to the Rural Development Under Secretary (who in turn has access to support and input from the Secretary).
NSAC continues to urge the Secretary to amend the reorganization plan to restore the RD Mission Area, the three existing agencies that make up the RD Mission Area, and the position of RD Under Secretary.
We also want to thank Representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), Cheri Bustos (D-IL), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Trent Kelly (R-MS), Ann Kuster (D-NH), and Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) for expressing their concerns and reservations over the downgrading of RD.
In addition, we thank Representatives Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) for expressing strong concerns over proposed cuts to rural development in the so-called skinny budget presented by President Trump earlier this year.
We are pleased that the Secretary made multiple comments stressing the importance of Department’s rural development mission, and his personal interest in being very hands on with respect to fostering and furthering that mission. The best next step he could take to achieve that goal would be to modify the reorganization plan to retain the current mission area, agencies, and under secretary. We hope that he will.
The Chairman and Ranking Member of the Conservation Subcommittee, Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) both asked questions about how moving NRCS into a single mission area with FSA and RMA would affect conservation priorities. FSA runs USDA’s commodity subsidy programs and RMA administers the crop insurance subsidy programs. There is some justifiable concern with this reorganization that conservation could be swallowed up by production and commodity issues. However, there is also a great deal of interest in having farmer-facing agencies working in a coordinated fashion under the same roof.
Chairman Lucas’ comments reflected these concerns well. He pointed out that coordination might be improved under the new reorganization plan, but also expressed concern that the conservation mission of the Department not be diminished in any way. Secretary Perdue responded that the mission would not change, and that the personnel would not change, but that the consolidated mission area would better serve the farmer customers.
Ranking Member Fudge asked pointedly whether or not Congress should expect to see any proposals for mergers between NRCS and FSA. She also expressed concern regarding any potential office closings, which would have a negative impact on farmers seeking conservation assistance and information.
The Secretary again responded that the mission of NRCS would not change, but did acknowledge that some locations of NRCS offices may change or be consolidated to achieve economies of scale. Office consolidation is particularly concerning if it removes field support and technical assistance that NRCS offices provide to farmer customers. As we noted last week, the White House skinny budget proposal to privatize conservation technical assistance would be devastating in this regard and would diminish the natural resource and environmental protection mission of the Department.
We welcome and appreciate the Secretary’s emphasis on better coordination between NRCS, FSA, and RMA. We will continue to watch closely to see what the implications may be for NRCS’s mission and services – we expect some clues may come from the President’s soon-to-be-released “fat budget” proposal.
Office of Advocacy and Outreach Left Unclear
Congresswoman Fudge also expressed concerns regarding what the reorganization could mean for the Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO). She explained that Congress put OAO in place so that there would be an advocate on behalf of small, beginning, and minority farmers at USDA.
The Congresswoman pointed to the fact that the reorganization plan appeared to downgrade OAO to reporting to the Assistant Secretary for Departmental Administration rather than its current position of reporting directly to the Secretary, and she sought clarification regarding the Secretary’s intentions.
Secretary Perdue responded that OAO made a lot of important progress under Secretary Vilsack and said that he didn’t envision that diminishing under his leadership whatsoever. He did not, however, respond directly to the question of why the reorganization plan seems to demote the office and remove it from a direct link with the Secretary. NSAC has heard from USDA personnel who believe that this part of the reorganization plan was unintentional and that some mistakes were made. If so, however, the Secretary did not clear that up in his response to Representative Fudge today.
NSAC looks forward to continuing to follow and analyze the reorganization and its effects as more information becomes available.