By Stewart Doan 

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.


WASHINGTON, June 23 - Democrats and Republicans alike on the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday praised U.S. Department of Agriculture efforts to crack down on fraud and abuse in farm and nutrition assistance programs and asked a panel of senior USDA officials for suggestions on how they might further streamline programs and services in the 2012 Farm Bill.

“We need to be thinking about ways that we can streamline the services we’re offering to make them more effective, and cut red tape and paperwork that our producers shouldn’t have to worry about,” said Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow at a hearing on accountability in USDA programs.

“We have some 20 different conservation programs. Do we need 20?” she asked.

Four agriculture undersecretaries in charge of implementing ag and nutrition programs assured committee members they’d taken steps to measure performance and eliminate duplication and waste in in their respective mission areas.

“All available resources, from state of the art data-mining technology to undercover investigations to criminal prosecutions, are used to ensure that recipients and retailers alike who misuse Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are held accountable,” said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

The sale, purchase or exchange of SNAP benefits for cash, an illegal practice commonly referred to as “trafficking,” now accounts for 1% of program expenditures, down from 4% in the mid- 1990s. 

Currently, over 44 million Americans receive SNAP benefits.

The switch to plastic electronic benefit cards from paper coupons has had a “dramatic effect on reducing trafficking,” Concannon explained. 

He also noted that SNAP’s national payment error rate fell to 3.81% in fiscal 2010, the fourth consecutive year of record-low error rates.

Sen. Kent Conrad saluted USDA for recognizing that “when we’re borrowing as a nation 40 cents of every dollar we spend, NO taxpayer money can be wasted and no program can be abused.”

The North Dakota Democrat, who chairs the powerful Budget Committee, lauded USDA for achieving “significant” savings by limiting employee travel, cancelling bad loans and reducing overhead costs of federal crop insurance. 

Conrad urged White House and congressional budget negotiators to take these and other USDA cost-cutting measures into account, complaining that some participants in the talks led by Vice President Biden are “pushing an agenda that would absolutely cripple production agriculture.”

Rural Development Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager acknowledged that many of his agency’s programs are “very similar” to other programs throughout the federal government.” He made the comment in response to criticism of RD’s recent decision to use the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) to fund the installation of ethanol blender pumps at retail fueling stations.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., pointed out the idea was rejected by Congress during deliberations on the 2008 Farm Bill and added the Energy Department operates a program that does the same thing.

“Did USDA understand that REAP would be duplicative of other U.S. government programs that fund ethanol infrastructure?” asked Chambliss.

USDA’s General Counsel said it was okay to use REAP for this purpose, replied Tonsager.

Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., relayed producers’ “frustrations” with the ACRE and SURE programs.

“Specifically, we hear complaints that the programs don’t allow for the timely delivery of assistance, that they use a multitude of data points, they’re generally confusing for the producer,” stated Roberts,

Michael Scuse, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, updated the committee on continuing efforts by the Farm Service Agency to modernize farm program delivery and administration. He cited USDA’s record $135.5 billion forecast for farm exports in FY 2011 as proof that a “leaner” Foreign Agricultural Service presence overseas remains as “effective as ever.”

Scuse and Natural Resources Undersecretary Harris Sherman commented on USDA’s response to flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Both officials said their agencies were working hand-in-hand to deliver emergency assistance to farmers in a timely manner.

Sherman also testified that a five-year streamlining initiative launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service would revolutionize the way farmer-customers interact with the agency and participate in its programs.

“NRCS and our clients will finalize -in the field - conservation planning, document the expected environmental benefits and accelerate payments to the producers,” he said.

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