A New and Improved USDA?
May 19, 2017
U.S. farm and commodity groups have long sought to strengthen the role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in developing and promoting policies that expand U.S. access to overseas markets. This effort has taken on added urgency in the last few years with the recent slide in commodity prices, which many groups believe would be best addressed by increasing the share of U.S. commodities which are shipped to overseas markets.
Since 2000, when Congress established a Chief Agricultural Negotiator position at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, with ambassadorial status, USDA’s role in conducting agricultural trade negotiations has gradually settled into primarily that of support, with Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) personnel providing technical expertise and guidance to their USTR counterparts but taking a back seat at the negotiating table. Many farm group leaders attributed this decline to the fact that the USDA lead on trade was an Under Secretary who had responsibilities for overseeing U.S. farm and crop insurance programs (at the Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency respectively) in addition to oversight of the trade functions at FAS.
In response to that perception, farm groups urged Congress to upgrade the role of agricultural trade at USDA. Subsequently, a provision (Section 3208) was included in the Agricultural Act of 2014 which required the Secretary of Agriculture to implement a plan within one year to re-organize the international trade functions of the Department, including the establishment of a position of Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs. As with all Under Secretary positions in the federal government, any individual nominated to fill that position would be subject to Senate confirmation.
That requirement was not met during the last few years of the Obama Administration, but on May 11, the new Secretary of Agriculture in the Trump administration, former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, announced a partial re-organization of USDA that would enable Section 3208 to be implemented.
In addition to establishing a new position of Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, as prescribed by Congress, with only FAS under his or her leadership, Secretary Perdue also announced other changes in the organizational structure of the Department. The Under Secretary position that formerly oversaw FAS, FSA, and RMA, called the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services (FFAS) mission area, will now oversee FSA, RMA, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), with a renamed mission area called Farm and Conservation Services. The slot of Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) will remain in place, but will have responsibility only for the U.S. Forest Service. Finally, the slot of Under Secretary for Rural Development will be eliminated, with the agencies in that mission area, Rural Utilities Service, the Rural Housing Service, and the Rural Business Cooperative Service, all being brought under the direct control of the Office of the Secretary.
This proposal appears to have been structured based on the premise that USDA has a limitation on the number of Under Secretary slots in the Department, but research conducted by the staff of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) finds no such restriction in statute. If that analysis is correct, it would appear that the restriction has instead been placed on Secretary Perdue by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
The 10-page document sent to Congress on the same day purporting to identify the actions in USDA’s proposed re-organization is very light on detail, especially on what might happen within the affected agencies (https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/report-proposed-2017-reorg-usda-under-secretary-trade-foreign-agricultural-affairs.pdf). It indicates that there will be no change in personnel levels at the various agencies, at least at the beginning, but it leaves many important questions unanswered, such as what happens to the Office of Capacity-Building and Development at FAS, which manages the McGovern-Dole international school feeding and Food for Progress programs. President Trump proposed de-funding the McGovern-Dole program in his March ‘skinny budget’ for fiscal year 2018 (FY18).
Secretary Perdue described the change for the RD agencies as representing an elevation of the issues they work on, but it is not immediately apparent how this new management structure might work. While there are a handful of USDA offices that fall directly under the Secretary’s purview, such as the Office of the Chief Economist or the Office of Budget Programming and Analysis, such offices have only dozens of employees located almost exclusively in Washington DC, while the RD agencies have nearly 4,500 employees, many of them scattered across the country. It is difficult to see how the complexities of managing infrastructure programs and projects in so many localities can be adequately overseen within the the Office of the Secretary.
An additional concern that has been raised as to whether this new structure might lead to assistance on commodity programs being emphasized at the county level at the expense of help to farmers seeking information on conservation issues, especially if county offices are further consolidated in response to the 21 percent USDA budget cut that President Trump proposed in March for FY18. A more detailed version of that proposed budget is expected to be released on May 23rd, which may shed more light on this question, as well as many others.