As President Trump prepares the State of the Union address at the midpoint of his term, fights over the U.S.-Mexico border wall, the Russia investigation, and his latest tweet are dominating headlines. But beneath the noise lies a remarkable, relentless, and often secretive two-year effort to structurally weaken and starve the Department of Agriculture. The 35-day government shutdown highlighted the critical role USDA offices and programs play for farmers and rural communities—a role that the new Congress will have to more decisively act to protect.
From day one, the USDA has been an afterthought to the Trump administration, despite the crucial role the Department plays in many areas of the country that helped elect the president. Michael Lewis reported that a representative from the transition team didn’t show up at the USDA until more than a month after the election. Politico reported that the first series of USDA appointees included a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas company meter reader, and a country club cabana attendant—none with a background in agriculture. The Agriculture Secretary was the last position filled in the President’s cabinet. When he was nominated, Sonny Perdue sailed through confirmation hearings by promising to improve “customer service”—though never defining the so-called “customer,” nor what services would be affected. Within weeks, Perdue began a series of surprising moves to restructure the Department.
Each step of Perdue’s USDA reorganization weakened critical agencies designed to serve farmers, rural communities and the public. Worse, the restructuring announcements came without warning, with little or, more often, no public input—including from Congressional Agriculture Committees. Over the last two years, this restructuring has combined with an aggressive budgetary effort to slash or eliminate vital farm and rural programs.
Soon after his confirmation, Perdue announced the elimination of the Undersecretary for Rural Development, downgrading the position’s authority within the Department. Rural Development oversees programs that support rural businesses, cooperatives, renewable energy, broadband, and rural utility, housing and water programs. Nearly 600 rural organizations immediately expressed their opposition. Before the required comment period was even completed though, Perdue named Anne Hazlett to fill the lower level, newly-created Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development. The recently passed Farm Bill reinstates the Undersecretary position, though no action has yet been taken by USDA to implement this requirement.
In the fall of 2017, Perdue announced his intention to eliminate the Grain Inspection and Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) as a stand-alone agency. Under Perdue’s plan, the critical role of protecting farmers from predatory market practices under GIPSA would be moved under the Agricultural Marketing Office (AMS), which promotes U.S. agriculture products. The shift forces regulators to answer to market promoters—an obvious and inherent conflict of interest. That same month, Perdue rejected a proposed regulation enabling independent producers to more easily challenge the anti-competitive business practices of meatpackers in court.
Also that fall, Perdue announced that two science-based agencies would better serve “customers” by reporting to trade and economic supervisors. The U.S. Codex Office, which coordinates international food safety initiatives, would move from the Food Safety and Inspection Service to the newly created Office of Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA). The move places an important international food safety office guided by science under an agency whose mission is to increase agricultural exports and imports. IATP wrote about the potential food safety hazards of giving trade officials the power to overrule food safety experts.
Another Perdue reform moved the Office of Pesticide Management Policy (OPMP) out of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and under the authority of the Office of the Chief Economist. OPMP and other USDA policy agencies depend on ARS for scientific advice. Instead, the scientifically unqualified Chief Economist will now oversee USDA’s pesticide policy.
In late Summer 2018, Perdue announced his plan to move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute on Food and Agriculture (NIFA), two critical research agencies, out of Washington—physically severing these research agencies from the policy arm of USDA. One expected outcome of the move is major losses of agency researchers reluctant or unable to move to the new agency headquarters, wherever that may be. Perdue also announced that ERS would move from the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics to the Office of the Secretary, giving Perdue more direct oversight of the agency. USDA never conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed relocations, which have been highly criticized by both Congress and the research community. A recent House budget bill called on the USDA to “delay indefinitely” such a move and more than 55 former USDA and federal statistical data employees wrote Congress last fall calling for the plan to be abolished.
SLASH AND BURN BUDGETS
Perdue’s restructuring has been complemented by an unrelenting budgetary attack on USDA programs. After just two months in office, President Trump’s so-called skinny budget called for a 21 percent cut in discretionary funding at USDA, targeted programs like rural development, agriculture research and international food aid, and proposed the elimination of proven economic development programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority. In May 2017, the Trump administration’s first full budget proposed to eliminate multiple Rural Cooperative Business Service Programs and slash the Rural Water and Waste Disposal Program, Single Family Housing Direct Loans, Rural Utilities Service Broadband grants and several important farm conservation programs. The budget would have cut more than five percent of the USDA’s workforce around the country.
Trump’s 2018 budget proposal called for a massive 25 percent cut across the entire USDA. Farm-focused programs would be cut by $47 billion over 10 years. The enormously popular Conservation Stewardship Program and the Regional Conservation Partnerships Program (RCPP) would be completely eliminated. The USDA's most important conservation agency, the Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS), the ERS and ARS all faced major cuts. Also slashed were rural broadband loans and distance learning programs, rural economic development and business programs, rural water and wastewater grants, and rural housing.
Finally, in May 2018, Trump tried again to use a rare budget rescission maneuver to slash $15.4 billion across a variety of USDA agencies, including food safety protections at the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, conservation and watershed protection at the National Resource Conservation Service, Rural Housing Assistance, Rural Cooperative Development, and Rural Water and Waste Disposal.
Fortunately, Congress has largely rejected these proposed budgetary attempts to diminish the USDA. But, it is painfully obvious what the White House and Secretary Perdue think about many USDA programs, and that has taken a toll on agency employees. According to Government Executive, between December 2016 and March 2018, the Agriculture Department has seen more staff departures than any other, losing 4,312 workers to a total of 83,148.
Perdue has further impeded the Department’s mission to serve the public interest by bringing in a crew of former executives from global pesticide giant Dow Chemical to run key agencies. Perdue appointed the head of field sciences at Dow’s agriculture division, Scott Hutchins, as Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics. As the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out, Hutchins joins former Dow AgroSciences lobbyist Ted McKinney, who was confirmed last year as USDA Under Secretary for Trade, and former Dow VP Ken Isley, who was appointed (without need for Senate confirmation) to head the Foreign Agricultural Service. Perdue also added Rebekah Adcock, a lobbyist at the pesticide group CropLife America, to lead the Department’s deregulatory team.
CAN CONGRESS LEAD?
When Perdue was first nominated, IATP posed 8 questions regarding key challenges facing farmers and the agriculture economy, including how he would address low prices, market competition, rights for agricultural workers, climate threats, weaknesses in food safety inspection, and polluted water in rural areas. None of those issues have been addressed—or largely even acknowledged.
After two years of Perdue’s “customer service”-driven agenda, it is hard not to view his changes as anything but a systematic attempt to weaken the department for the long term. As troubling, the USDA changes add to other rising pressures for farmers and rural communities brought on by the Trump administration’s combative trade agenda, hostile immigration policies and confrontations with Congress that shut down the government—including USDA field offices—for more than a month. There are early signs that this Congress, particularly the House, will push back on a number of Perdue’s reorganization initiatives. That’s a good thing, but will they reverse the damage already done?