WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2016 - USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says he’s reluctant to overhaul the department’s structure in the final year of the Obama administration by creating a new under secretary position for trade, but farm groups are pressuring him to follow the instructions to do so set forth in the 2014 farm bill.

“By all accounts there seems to be some hesitation,” said National Council of Farm Cooperatives President Chuck Conner, talking about USDA’s lack of progress in creating the new position. And he’s right.

Vilsack expressed his reservations in an audio statement in October. He said he was still unsure “whether or not it is appropriate or fair that an administration that’s sort of in its last quarter is doing something that will have a very significant and profound impact on the next administration without that administration having any say or involvement.”

But Conner, a former USDA deputy secretary and acting secretary during the George W. Bush administration, said he’s very concerned about the possibility of a new administration being ushered in under the same old organizational structure.

“Ultimately, this is the law,” Conner said in an interview. “It’s not going to change. So, pragmatically for us, the worst case scenario would be that there would be a turnover in the administration and you would have a whole new group of people appointed and confirmed by the Senate under the old structure.”

Randy Russell, partner in the Russell Group, an influential agricultural consulting firm, and Conner -- both of whom were recently invited to brief lawmakers on the issue -- said they recognize that restructuring USDA by creating a new under secretary position while not exceeding the current number of those positions at seven will be difficult. But both also stressed that it should be done as quickly as possible.

“It’s better to get it right than rapidly, but there has to be a commitment to get it done,” Russell said.

Another high-powered organization that supports the creation of new trade under secretary position and would like to see it finalized within a year is the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Having a senior political appointment that reports to the secretary and is able to keep his or her attention focused on that particular aspect of agriculture insures we will be quick to respond to disruptions in trade and proactively work to avoid disruptions in trade,” said Dale Moore, AFBF executive director for public policy.

Currently USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service handles the bulk of the department’s trade responsibilities, but that service is lumped together with the massive Farm Service Agency under one under secretary’s purview.

Russell said he has great respect for Michael Scuse, the current Under Secretary of Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, but stressed that U.S. agricultural trade needs the stature of having its own division. He also pointed out that much of Scuse’s focus has to be aimed at implementing FSA priorities like the new and complex subsidy programs in the 2014 farm bill.

Meanwhile, exports have become a larger part of the farming sector than ever before.

U.S. agricultural exports have quadrupled in the past 40 years and the complications involved in international trade have also increased, Russell said. Whereas the primary concern was once tariffs on U.S. goods, non-tariff barriers have grown substantially along with the importance of USDA agencies like the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to deal with foreign sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions.

For example, right now it is APHIS’s Plant Protection and Quarantine division that U.S. rice growers are counting on to finish a deal with China that would allow U.S. access to the biggest import market in the world.

Beyond Vilsack’s reluctance to make the changes in the waning days of the Obama administration, the secretary also stressed the difficulty in creating a new division in USDA to handle all aspects of trade, pulling in functions that touch on international commerce from a wide array of agencies such as APHIS and the Food Safety Inspection Service. While the primary function of FSIS is to insure food safety at federally licensed meat producers, the agency also evaluates production establishments in foreign countries that export to the U.S. Likewise, APHIS evaluates foreign trading partners to make sure they are free of animal threats like foot and mouth disease.

“It would require … a reshuffling – a transfer of jurisdiction of several mission areas to a new, single entity,” Vilsack said. “All of that would take a considerable amount of time to implement.”

But USDA has had a lot of time and already missed the deadline set for it by Congress in the 2014 farm bill, Conner said.

There was strong bipartisan support for the restructuring in Congress, Moore pointed out. Demands for the new under secretary position grew as farm state lawmakers like then-senators Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Max Baucus of Montana tried to address the growing concern from farm groups that USDA wasn’t organized to provide optimal support for trade.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the top Democrat on the panel, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, are strong supporters of the farm bill provision.

“The Agricultural Act of 2014 clearly gave USDA a directive to develop and report on a reorganization plan leading to the establishment of a trade under secretary position,” Roberts told Agri-Pulse. “Congress included this directive due to the growing trade functions of the department. I look forward to working with the department to implement this Farm Bill provision in a way that will continue to ensure the United States’ role in expanding and opening future markets for U.S. farmers and ranchers.”

The USDA did contract with the National Academy of Public Administration, or NAPA, to prepare an analysis of how to best implement the restructuring, but Conner stressed that not only is the USDA a year past the deadline set in the farm bill, it appears the department is not acting on the report’s suggestions.

A USDA spokeswoman declined to comment on the department’s progress.

The primary proposal put forth by NAPA is a radical departure from the status quo. The analysts concluded USDA should create three new mission areas to replace the current seven: Trade and Market Development, Health and Safety and Farm Services and Risk Management.

But Vilsack isn’t beholden to the report, Conner said.


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