NSAC's Blog

Say It Ain’t So Mr. Secretary!

July 2, 2010

One day.  Two House of Representatives hearings.  USDA schizophrenia.

That is one of the story lines from Thursday, July 1.

See here and here for  our earlier posts on Thursday’s Child Nutrition hearing and Conservation Program hearing.

But now for the bigger, underlying story.

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill needs to pass and needs to pass soon.  Congress punted last year and extended the programs to this year.  Unless it acts soon, they will be forced to punt again, and school, summer, child care and other feeding programs, and all the low-income children they serve, will bear the brunt of their inaction.  It will also delay funding and implementation of the Farm to School program, a parochial favorite of NSAC and many of our partners, and a key ingredient for improving the quality of school meals and nutrition education.

To get a bill moving in the Senate Agriculture Committee earlier this year, the Administration offered up a $4.5 billion offset package to pay for child nutrition program improvements.  Unfortunately, that package included a $2.8 billion reduction in funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as if, with all the wasteful spending and tax loopholes in the federal budget, we need to pit clean water, wildlife enhancement, and carbon sequestration against feeding school children.  It was a bad move, but at least allowed the child nutrition bill to start moving.

Fast forward to the House action that is just now finally beginning.  The House bill offered by Education and Labor Committee chairman George Miller (D-CA) incorporates most of the Senate bill but offers further child nutrition improvements such that the bill totals $8 billion in new spending, somewhat closer to the $10 billion that President Obama asked for back in February.

Naturally, a big question at Thursday’s Education and Labor hearing on child nutrition was how to pay for the bill.  In a Q&A with Ranking Republican John Kline (R-MN), USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack correctly noted that the time to do this legislation is now, with the situation becoming only more difficult if Congress waits until next year.   But Vilsack also went on to suggest that he could find $8 billion in offsets from the USDA budget to pay for the school food program increases.

First, were that the case, the legislation would very likely be all wrapped up by now.  If there were good, viable options available for cut backs, they would have been proposed long before now – like maybe back in February when the President asked for $10 billion but did not recommend any offsets whatsoever.

But figuring out offsets is tricky business, and understandably difficult to address during a hearing such as yesterday’s.  And it is particularly difficult for one Cabinet Secretary to address any offsets that are under another Secretary’s purview.  While we may have preferred specific reference to other parts of the federal budget and particularly to give-away tax expenditures, we understand why that did not happen.  It is what came next we do not understand.

Kline expressed his opposition to the Senate Committee-passed EQIP cut.  Vilsack then hedged his bets a bit on the ultimate size of the EQIP cut, suggesting it could possibly be smaller, but proceeded to note that farm bill conservation program spending has outpaced the ability of the personnel at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to deliver it, and thus cuts might be appropriate.

This same line has now been repeated by the Secretary on numerous occasions in various contexts.  And all we can say is, say it ain’t so Mr. Secretary!

Say it ain’t so that because the Obama Administration has to date followed the failed Bush Administration policy of freezing the NRCS staff despite a nearly 400% increase in farm bill conservation spending in the last two farm bills that therefore it is legitimate to make cuts in farm bill funding approved by Congress and signed into law by the President after several years of tough negotiations.

Say it ain’t so that good government means failing to strategically plan for an adequate delivery system to deal with the public commitment to rapidly increase investments in critical soil, water, air, energy, climate, and wildlife conservation.

Say it ain’t so that you find yourself helpless to change the failed policies of the preceding Administration on this point.

Say it ain’t so that you are throwing in the towel on renegotiating conservation technical assistance rates with the Office of Management and Budget.

Say it ain’t so that conservation and the environment should be sacrificed while earlier this year you chose to keep commodity production subsidy payment limitation rules in place that invite and encourage fraud and abuse and waste taxpayer resources.

Say it ain’t so that the Obama Administration can manufacture a funding crisis with respect to the Conservation Reserve Program and find a “solution” to a “problem” of its very own making, but then turn around and say that conservation spending for working farmland (as opposed to paying farmers not to farm through the CRP) is up for grabs to pay for school lunches.

NRCS is making strides through its “streamlining initiative” to do more with less by maximizing field staff time working directly with farmers and minimizing time spent on paperwork.  This is to be applauded.  But no amount of streamlining can make up for the failure to match personnel to the magnitude of the programs being delivered.

Congress provided the means to get this done in the 2002 Farm Bill, but the statutory solution was rejected by the Bush Administration, leading to a second congressional debate and ultimately to a successful legislative effort to get it back on track.  Yet, despite a second clarification becoming law, the macro situation remains essentially unchanged to this day — too little staffing and technical assistance relative to the greatly increased size of farm bill conservation programs.

The time has come to make it right.  The Secretary and his excellent team can make it happen.  We hope they do.  And while they do, we hope there will be no further talk about farm conservation and environmental enhancement program cuts being appropriate because they have not done the job.  Farmers and the environment deserve better.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Nutrition & Food Access

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