WASHINGTON, February 15, 2012 -As usual, the president’s budget for USDA is being greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth that approaches biblical proportions. As usual, it will not be approved in Congress in every detail. The overused phrase “dead on arrival” has been trotted out. Nevertheless, absent an unexpected uprising of new Tea Party cost-cutting this year, the great bulk of the Obama Administration USDA recommendations will survive the appropriations process.

That is because the budget embodies, with only minor tweaks, a status quo that has evolved with bipartisan support over several years, regardless of the party in power in Congress or on the second floor of USDA’s Whitten Building. It remains so, in large part, because it aggregates the collective desire of interest groups with the political influence to resist significant change.

Nowhere in the department’s budget summary is there a suggestion of fundamental policy change – not the kind of shift toward small-farm sponsorships sought by “foodie” reformers, not the U-turn from support focused on major program crops produced mostly on large-scale farms.

Although the political environment demands economies that will force some agencies to do more with slightly less appropriated funds and a bit fewer people, USDA will have roughly 100,000 employees through the fiscal year that begins in October – almost identical to its staff years in fiscal 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency. The fiscal 2013 budget seeks 905 fewer positions, half of the cuts proposed for the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Major commodity programs would see little change beyond elimination of direct payments, a consensus position in Congress and the administration. Crop insurance would continue to be available to farmers – even though subsidy cuts don’t sit well with insurance companies, agents and most farm groups. Direct and guaranteed farm loans of roughly $56 million would be made once more. Rural development loans and grants would stay at $2.4 million. Export promotion programs remain on course.

Food assistance, which accounts for 72 percent of projected $155 billion outlays, sees only small boosts for school lunch reimbursement and maternal and infant nutrition. Conservation programs too continue near current levels, even with a proposed lower cap on Conservation Reserve Program acreage and elimination of one-time emergency watershed protection grants.

Unlike the FDA budget, which relies on significant new user fees for food safety inspection, the USDA budget proposes relatively few new user fees. Minor fee increases for food safety would cover additional costs of inspecting plants after recalls of meat or poultry linked to an outbreak of food-borne illness. Another $4 million would be collected from applicants for approval of biotech crops to offset Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service expenses.

Most research programs are held harmless, with small increases sought for National Institute for Food and Agriculture competitive research grants to continue a gradual shift in priorities toward renewable energy, climate change, international food security, antibiotic resistance and food safety. The National Agricultural Statistics Service would get an added $21 million and 261 staff positions for the 2012 Census of Agriculture. The USDA budget summary can be downloaded and read by clicking HERE.


Original story printed in February 15, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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