by Sara Wyant and Philip Brasher

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2015 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expressed concerns today that continued cuts in USDA’s operating budget is straining the ability of those who work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep doing their jobs well.

"If you keep nickel and diming salaries and expenses and operating expenses, eventually you are going to see less timely service, despite the best efforts of the people working here,” Vilsack said in a response to a question about conservation funding at the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting. “After several years of this, enough is enough.”

He noted that, with passage of the new farm bill, “we are talking about thousands of people with new programs and significantly new responsibilities.”

Vilsack said that, when he took over the agency in 2009, there were about 105,000 people working for USDA. Now there are around 85,000 -- even though that number will increase this summer as the Forest Service makes temporary hires in preparation for fire season.

The secretary said he appreciated the fiscal “environment that we are in” but hopes that Congress will rethink the cutbacks it has placed on his agency.

“We are one of only one or two departments that have faced steady decline (in operating budgets),” Vilsack said. “I think Congress needs to be sensitive here and not expect only USDA to shoulder the burden…...There needs to be a little equity.”

For fiscal year 2016, USDA has requested $25 billion in discretionary budget authority, which covers operational expenses among other things. That figure is about $1 billion above 2015 but down from $27 billion in FY 2010, according to a USDA budget summary. Most of the department’s budget is mandated by Congress to pay for outlays including crop insurance, nutrition assistance programs, farm commodity and trade programs and a number of conservation programs.

The number of USDA employees, measured in staff years, dropped sharply starting in fiscal 2010, from 105,617 to a low of 93,594 in fiscal 2014, which ended last Sept. 30, according to USDA’s annual budget summaries. 

Employment is rebounding significantly in the current year to an estimated 99,493, in part because of staff added to implement the 2014 farm bill and other congressional requirements. (The staff-year figures include temporary employees, in contrast to the numbers Vilsack cited, according to the department.
The president’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget, which assumed the removal of the spending caps required by the 2011 budget agreement, called for 99,314 employees.

"Even with the estimated increase in overall USDA staffing between 2014 and 2015, total department staffing would remain about 6 percent below 2010 levels, while the department has delivered record levels of service,” a USDA spokesman said in an email. 


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