NSAC's Blog

Trump Administration Undertaking Historic Reorganizing of USDA, But to What End?

September 15, 2017

Sonny Perdue. Photo Credit: USDA

Back in May, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a USDA reorganization plan that eliminated its Rural Development Mission Area and downgraded the status of what was the Under Secretary for Rural Development to an Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development, closing the Office of the Under Secretary in the process. The announcement coincided with the release of the first budget proposal by the new Trump Administration, one that recommended decimating rural development programs.

In June, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and over 500 rural organizations, businesses, and local agencies wrote to Congress opposing the reorganization as well as the Administration’s proposed 31 percent budget cut to rural development programs. The letter stated that losing the Under Secretary and suffering huge cuts “will substantially diminish resources dedicated to improving rural communities and the lives of rural people” while noting “rural counties in America are in worse condition than big cities, suburbs and small or medium metro areas….higher poverty and unemployment rates as well as a higher incidence of substandard housing and rent overburden when compared to metropolitan areas.”

In May, members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee raised concerns about the planned downgrading of support for rural America; and shortly thereafter, in July, the Senate Appropriations Committee outright rejected the elimination of the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary, directing the Secretary to reverse course and providing funding for the Office of the Under Secretary. Meanwhile, both the House and Senate bills rejected most of the cuts proposed in the Trump budget for rural areas. Those bills, including the Senate proposal to reverse the reorganization, are pending a House and Senate joint funding bill due to be passed in the first week of December. NSAC continues its advocacy for inclusion of the Senate provision on the reorganization.

Reorganization Announcement #2

USDA Secretary Perdue has indicated there will be several more USDA reorganization moves coming down the pike, and the second shoe dropped on September 7. As yet, the Department has not released any detailed plan for this latest round of the reorganization, so to date all that can be analyzed is a fairly short press release that lists the agencies and offices that will be changed.

As with any such plan, the corresponding shifts in funding line items needed to implement the reorganization will need to be agreed to by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. That action to approve or not approve the funding shifts will likely happen during the next month.

NSAC has reviewed the USDA press release and finds that some of the changes appear to be quite reasonable and helpful. Others, however, raise very serious questions. Until there is something more than a press release to review, all of our reactions are necessarily tentative, but some initial concerns are summarized here.

Farmer Protection and Fair Competition

Our biggest point of concern is with the Packers and Stockyards program, whose mission is to promote fair and competitive trading practices by regulating the operations of meat packers and poultry companies for the benefit of farmers and consumers. Prior to the last big reorganization of USDA in 1994, the Packers and Stockyards Administration implemented this law, but since 1994 it has been combined with federal grain marketing standards as part of the Grain Inspection and Packers and Stockyards Administration or GIPSA. The newly announcement plan would send both the marketing program (grain inspection) and the regulatory program (Packers and Stockyards) to the marketing and promotion agency of USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).

NSAC has no issue with moving grain inspection, whose purpose is to help industry facilitate marketing through uniform standards and weights, to AMS. We have very serious concerns, however, with placing a regulatory body, whose mission is to protect farmers from abusive and deceptive practices by packers and integrators, into a marketing and promotion agency. The purpose and function of the Packers and Stockyards Act is very unlike the other functions of AMS. It is also not clear, in the absence of any details, how the functioning and staffing of the Packers and Stockyards program would be maintained under the new plan.

Our concern is magnified by the fact that the Trump Administration has taken two important proposed Farmer Fair Practices rules – to address unfair practices and preferences that harm farmers – off of its list of pending regulations, while delaying a critical interim final rule protecting farmers from unreasonable demands when defending themselves against abusive practices. Taking the two proposed rules off the list of pending regulations while delaying the implementation date for the interim final rule has been widely interpreted as signaling a move away from farmer protection and any serious enforcement of the Act. That said, there has been no public announcement and explanation of the move from the Administration. NSAC continues to join with other farm groups in urging the Department to implement the interim final rule and to move forward on promulgating final rules on the two proposed rules.

Tribal Relations

Another area of deep concern is the plan to move the independent Office of Tribal Relations, which is responsible for government-to-government relations between USDA and tribal governments, into a broader grouping of offices that would include the Office of Advocacy and Outreach (which deals with minority and beginning farmer issues), the Military Veterans Liaison, and the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office. The USDA press release notes “each office will retain its own character and identity, and continue to communicate with its core constituency, but this realignment will ensure a more coordinated and consistent approach.” There is some reassurance in that statement, and NSAC is supportive of the joining of the veteran liaison with the Office of Advocacy and Outreach staff. However, as a government-to-government body, we join with tribal governments and tribal agriculture groups in opposing the movement of the Office of Tribal Relations. As is currently the case, coordination with beginning farmer and socially disadvantaged farmer outreach can still happen without the move, and therefore we hope the Department will reconsider and abide by the concerns of the tribal governments.

Downgrading Science? 

Three other parts of the second phase of USDA’s reorganization raise questions about the role of science in policy decision-making. The reorganization would move the Office of Pest Management Policy from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to the Office of the Chief Economist. It would move the U.S. Codex Office, which deals with international food safety standards, from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to the new Trade and Foreign Agriculture Affairs Mission Area established to promote US exports. It would also merge the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP), which develops US dietary guidelines, into the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).

Following passage of the landmark Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, USDA established the Office of Pest Management Policy at ARS to lead the Department’s strategic planning and activities related to pest management, coordinate with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on its pesticide regulatory process, and promote research and development of new pest management approaches, including advanced Integrated Pest Management (IPM), to meet agricultural needs while protecting public health and the environment. At the same time, the USDA research agencies established Regional IPM Centers to help advance this work.

It is difficult to understand how the Office of the Chief Economist and its small staff within the Office of the Secretary would manage IPM research and regional centers or create broad scientific plans and strategies for pest management. Perhaps when details of the plan are released this will become clearer; but in the meantime, we have additional concerns with respect to USDA’s advisory role with EPA on pesticide regulation. Will the scientific advice provided by ARS now be replaced by advice based purely on economics and the costs to industry of restricting the use of hazardous chemicals? That could be one reading of the intent of the change, and one that Congress should seek answers on before approving the movement of funding from ARS to the Chief Economist.

The U.S. Codex Office is an interagency partnership to engage US stakeholders in the advancement of science-based food standards at the international level through the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international scientific body under the auspices of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. As an interagency group, which includes seven USDA agencies, the Food and Drug Administration, the EPA, and several other government bodies, there is no particular magic to housing the office at FSIS – there could be other logical choices. However, moving it to the new USDA division charged with promoting U.S. exports sends a fairly clear and unmistakable signal that the mission of the office is changing from science-based decision-making to export promotion. This is another area where Congress should seek some answers and assurances before signing off on reprogramming dollars.

The iterative five-year process of revising US dietary standards is overseen currently by the CNPP, which is part of the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Mission Area of USDA, but separate from the far larger FNS that runs all of the major food assistance programs that make up the bulk of USDA spending. As stated in the USDA press release, the two agencies “are closely intertwined and serve a similar mission.” However, the work of CNPP is quite specialized, linking scientific research to the nutrition needs. It will be important to ensure that the independence and scientific integrity of that unique mission be retained and improved as it becomes part of FNS.

Back to Rural Development

The new reorganization announcement includes a brand new program, to be called the Rural Development Innovation Center. According to the USDA press release, the new center “will be tasked with evaluating the impacts of the business, housing, and utilities programs provided by the Department” and will help inform “where additional investments will be most impactful when it comes to RD program delivery.” While it is difficult to assess what this means exactly, program evaluation and strategic investment planning is always welcome.

Hopefully this signals some movement away from the draconian rural development budget cuts included in the first Trump budget proposal. The proof will be in the next budget proposal, which we expect the Administration to roll out next February. In the meantime, we hope Congress will adopt the Senate appropriations provision restoring the USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development when it finalizes the 2018 spending bill in early December. The new Innovation Center could then be utilized by the Under Secretary to advance strategic investments in rural infrastructure, jobs, and business development.

What’s Next?

It is becoming clear that the plans underway at USDA amount to a very major reorganization of the Department, though given the multiple stage roll out, it is not clear what the overall big picture will be. The last major reorganization of USDA happened after many congressional hearings, followed by debate and passage of the USDA Reorganization Act of 1994. This current major reorganization is happening under broad generic administrative authority without any hearings or new authorizations by Congress; though as with any reorganization small or large, congressional appropriators do need to sign off on the movement of appropriated funds from one area to another. The next budget request from USDA and the White House may also shed greater light on the plan and its potential consequences.

In the meantime, rumor has it that the next reorganization announcement will include some re-workings within the new Farm Production and Conservation mission area at USDA, a division that combines the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, and Natural Resources Conservation Service under a single roof, reporting to an Under Secretary. NSAC will of course be paying very close attention to that announcement, particularly its ramifications for conservation, and will keep our readers informed when it rolls out.


Categories: Competition & Anti-trust, Food Safety, Nutrition & Food Access, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development

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