Vilsack parries approps panel queries about office, research cuts

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2012 -Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack found himself on the receiving end of numerous pointed questions about USDA's signature downsizing initiative during what was expected to be a routine Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the department's fiscal 2013 budget request.

Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., who's retiring at the end of the year, Ranking Member Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and others on the panel voiced concerns about the impact of the cuts on the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor's opening comment to Vilsack offered the first hint of what was to come.

“Mr. Secretary,” Pryor said, “I think a bad way to start a hearing is when one of us writes you a letter on Feb. 21st and we don't get the response until March 28th at 4 pm, hand-delivered, the day before a hearing.” Kansas Republican Jerry Moran lodged a similar complaint.

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The Obama administration is seeking $19.3 billion in discretionary funding for USDA in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, about $478 million above the 2012 level.

Subcommittee members from both sides of the aisle made reference to the important role agriculture is playing in the nation's economic recovery and, even in an era of shrinking budget resources, argued for “wise” federal investments in crop insurance and research to enhance farm sector competitiveness.

Given that USDA's spending proposal is “several billion dollars less than it was in 2010,” Vilsack pleaded with the subcommittee to give him the time and flexibility to manage the cutbacks through the Blueprint for Stronger Service. Launched in January, the blueprint “identifies administrative efficiencies, office closures and targeted staffing reductions to help us deal with reductions in funding,” he explained, promising that the “plan will create optimal use of USDA's employees, better results for USDA customers, and greater efficiencies for American taxpayers.” Some 131 of the 259 offices, facilities and labs across the country targeted for closure are operated by the FSA.

“Seems like Arkansas got a lot of focus over at USDA when they looked at cutting their budget this year,” complained Pryor, who's in line to become either the subcommittee's chairman or ranking member after the 2012 elections.

He grilled Vilsack on the process for closing facilities, which affects 10 FSA offices in Arkansas, noting that if USDA had opted to use 20 road miles rather than Euclidean (straight line) miles to select offices for shutdowns, “seven of the 10 offices” in his state would not be closing. Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill left it up to USDA to decide which distance measurement to use.

Vilsack denied that straight-line distance was selected because it guaranteed a larger number of offices would be shuttered and acknowledged that farmers in some rural areas may have to travel more than 20 miles to reach their nearest FSA office as a result. But he suggested that a longer drive for some farmers was preferable to “creating potential chaos in 2000 offices” through mandatory employee reductions.

“As long as I'm secretary, the last thing I want to do is furlough a worker or lay one off, and if I can prevent it that's what I'm going to do,” Vilsack said. He reminded lawmakers that FSA staffing levels have already declined by approximately one-third in the past decade.

But Pryor wasn't done. In an unplanned third round of questioning, he criticized USDA's decision to close an ARS facility in Booneville, Ark. - one of the 12 nationwide - that focuses solely on research to boost the profits of small farms. Vilsack said the research work would be transferred to ARS centers located in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Following up on concerns raised by Blunt and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., about USDA's proposal to allocate fewer research dollars to land-grant universities, Pryor asked, “Are ya'll just going to be getting out of the research business? Is that where you're headed?

“Senator, we have over 100 facilities that will still be operating,” Vilsack shot back, seemingly offended by the question. “We've been advocating for more research opportunities ‑ it doesn't necessarily mean we have to have the same number of facilities - so it's unfair to suggest that we're trying to get out of the research business.”

The visibly irritated USDA chief also told ag appropriators that “it was fair to point out that Congress has provided less money in several areas of our budget and we have to deal with that.

“I'm not going to whine about it, I'm not going to complain about it, I'm going to manage it. But I have to have the capacity to manage it. I have to have the capacity to make choices. And sometimes those choices are difficult,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, House legislation blocking USDA from closing or relocating FSA offices with a high workload volume was introduced by two members of the Agriculture Committee just prior to Congress adjourning for its two-week Easter recess.

Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., and Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, said their Farm Service Accountability Act was necessary to ensure that decisions coming from USDA headquarters in Washington are made in a fair and prudent manner to minimize the negative impact on producers. Their bill would prevent USDA from closing any offices pending completion of a workload assessment.


Original story printed in April 4th, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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