May 25, 2017
One day after the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget was released, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue headed to Capitol Hill to testify before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. This subcommittee, along with its counterpart in the Senate, is comprised of the members of Congress who will ultimately determine discretionary funding levels for food and agriculture programs in the coming fiscal year. Perdue went before the Subcommittee in order to speak about the Administration’s FY 2018 budget proposal, and also took a considerable number of questions from representatives interested in better understanding his proposed “reorganization” of the Department.
Members of the Subcommittee pressed the Secretary to explain what drove the Administration to slash successful programs that benefit farmers and rural America. The Secretary did not attempt to defend (or decry) the proposed cuts, but simply told legislators that he would implement whatever budget Congress set for FY 2018. The Secretary did, however, defend his proposed USDA reorganization plan. He doubled down on previous claims that he was elevating Rural Development within USDA and not downgrading it. He also assured Subcommittee members that conservation programs would not be diminished despite the movement of the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) to a new Mission Area shared with the Farm Services Agency (FSA) and Risk Management Agency (RMA).
Following is a summary of the Secretary’s testimony before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee:
A Betrayal of Promises to Rural America
Members of the Subcommittee on both sides of the aisle expressed strong concerns about what the President’s proposed budget – which would gut USDA’s FY 2018 discretionary funding by an estimated 21 percent – would mean for rural America. In his opening remarks, Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-AL) lamented that many critical USDA programs were significantly reduced or eliminated altogether in the Administration’s FY 2018 budget request:
“Many in agriculture and rural America are likely to find little to celebrate within the budget request,” the Chairman stated.
Ranking Member Sanford Bishop (D-GA) echoed the Chairman’s concerns, noting that USDA is vital to the economic well being of rural communities across the country. He spoke about the importance of research, infrastructure programs, and support for landowners to preserve soil and water quality, and expressed his disappointment that each of these important areas faced severe cuts in the Administration’s proposal:
“You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip and the budget that was submitted yesterday attempts to do just that,” said Bishop. “Mr. Secretary, you said you will make rural America a priority, and I know without a doubt that you want to do that. However, we both know that this budget does the exact opposite of fulfilling that promise.”
The Chair and Ranking Member of the full Appropriations Committee also provided opening remarks for the hearing. Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R- NJ) reminded the Secretary and the Subcommittee that the hearing (and in fact the President’s budget request itself) was merely part of the process, and emphasized that ultimately the “power of the purse” belongs to Congress. Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D- NY) noted the crushing impact that the Administration’s budget would have on rural Americans and people worldwide:
“Sadly, you come before us with a budget proposal that will increase hunger worldwide, devastate Rural America, increase burdens on the department, and make it more difficult to meet the basic needs of American families,” said Lowey.
Throughout the hearing many other members of the Subcommittee expressed alarm over the Administration’s proposed budget and probed Perdue for his thoughts and insights on the proposals and USDA’s ability to continue to meet its mission on a shoestring budget.
Proposed Cuts Would Mean Challenges and Missed Opportunities
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) noted that programs like the Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) have created new economic opportunities for farmers in Maine and around the country.
The budget request proposes to completely eliminate all mandatory and discretionary funding for VAPG, claiming that this funding is duplicative. Congresswoman Pingree challenged this assertion, explaining that in Maine alone VAPG has provided business planning support and seed capital to creameries, potato growers, hop producers, and many others:
“How can you justify that it is a duplicative program?” the Congresswoman asked. “I don’t see anywhere else that farmers are going to go to get those same grants and opportunities.”
Secretary Perdue noted that he would look into it and get back to the Congresswoman’s question. In closing, Congresswoman Pingree also noted her opposition to the 11 percent proposed cut to the National Organic Program (NOP). She opposed the suggestion that three vacant NOP positions would not be filled, and emphasized the importance of the program’s work.
SNAP Proposals “Fail the Test of Basic Human Decency”
Several members of the Subcommittee spoke out against the proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which would take nearly $200 billion from the program over the next ten years. Ranking Member Bishop spoke the most boldly against the proposed cuts, saying that they “fail the test of basic human decency.”
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) also insisted that the cuts were unacceptable and told the Subcommittee that “we can and must do better in the United States.” She called the proposal a “cruel, heartless turning of our backs,” and promised that it would not move forward. Additionally, she noted the irony of the White House proposal when compared to what Secretary Perdue claimed as USDA’s new mission – “Do right and feed everyone.”
Reorganization Concerns Remain
As with last week’s House Agriculture Committee hearing, Secretary Perdue faced questions regarding his proposed USDA reorganization plan. Members of both the Committee and Subcommittee expressed particular concern over the reorganization’s impact on USDA Rural Development. When paired with the Administration’s FY 2018 budget request, which severely cuts or eliminates nearly all Rural Development programs, the reorganization proposal would spell disaster for rural communities.
Members of the Subcommittee stressed that they needed more information regarding two major pieces of the reorganization – the elimination of the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary position, and the move to put NRCS, FSA, and RMA under a single mission area.
Subcommittee members are carefully reviewing the reorganization proposal, and both Chairman Aderholt and Ranking Member Bishop insisted that they would need more information on how the changes would potentially impact rural communities. Congressman Bishop noted that while he appreciated the Secretary’s commitment to advancing rural development, he still was grappling with how the restructuring would address the complex suite of programs and responsibilities embedded within the current Mission Area. Congresswoman Pingree underscored how problematic the reorganization would be for her constituencies, particularly in combination with the Administration’s proposed cuts.
Appropriators have the power to stop the Administration from eliminating the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary, and we will continue to encourage them to do just that.
The House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees typically hold a series of hearings to examine the Administration’s budget request in any particular year. They then develop and pass their appropriations bills sometime in the spring. Given the late release of the budget request this year (May instead of the normal release date of early February), it is unlikely that the Subcommittees will hold their normal number of hearings for FY 2018. Moreover, the USDA Under Secretaries, who typically appear before the Subcommittees to defend their respective portions of the budget request, have yet to be named and confirmed by the Senate. We expect that the Subcommittees will hold one or two more hearings throughout May and June before developing and passing their FY 2018 bills ahead of the August recess. Stay tuned for more information in the coming weeks.