WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2016 - The next administration at USDA will face budget, staffing and technology challenges and will need to gear up unusually quickly to assist Congress in writing a new farm bill, according to veterans of the department.
The first challenge for the new president and agriculture secretary will be filling top slots at the department, and speed will be critical. The nation’s new chief executive will face a similar situation to George W. Bush when he took office in 2001 in that Congress plans to start working almost immediately on a new farm bill even as the administration is trying to staff up.
But the budget situation in 2017 will be dramatically different, and more challenging, than it was in 2001. Back then, the government was running a surplus. In fiscal 2017, the federal deficit is estimated to reach $594 billion.
“There will be a lot of pressure early in the new Congress to get control of the budget,” said Ken Ackerman, who ran USDA’s Risk Management Agency from 1993 to 2001 and now works for OFW Law. For RMA that will mean the new administrator will have to defend spending for computer, compliance, product development and other services that are critical to the agency, he said.
There will continue to be budget challenges over the next four years at the Farm Service Agency, where longstanding efforts to increase efficiency and streamline county offices have continually run into stiff resistance from Congress. At the same time, FSA needs to recruit new talent as its workforce continues to age.
“The push to cut spending and trim budgets … runs headlong into an agency spread out across a lot of rural communities,” said Jonathan Coppess, who ran the Farm Service Agency from 2009 through 2011. FSA’s nationwide staff, including its non-federal, county employees, has been cut from 14,678 to about 12,000 since President Obama took office.
“How do you recruit and bring people into the system and continue to operate remote offices? There’s a lot of factors that go into that that will be a big challenge,” Coppess said. “I wouldn’t pretend to have solutions here and now.”
At the Natural Resources Conservation Service, former agency chiefs see a somewhat different set of challenges. Bruce Knight, who ran NRCS during the Bush administration from 2002 to 2006, fears conservation programs will be vulnerable to cuts unless the agency improves their transparency by making it easier for the public to assess how the money is being spent and how the programs are benefitting the environment.
Knowing that a program is doing “good work isn’t good enough in today’s society. That has to be transformed into transparent measures and metrics that can show what’s the return to the taxpayer for that dollar invested - how effective is this program versus that program,” Knight said.
Dave White, who ran NRCS during Obama’s first term, also worries about the vulnerability of funding for conservation programs. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, an Interior Department program that uses offshore oil and gas revenue to acquire federal state and local lands, is more popular with environmental groups, says White.
“But the sad truth is, more is cut from NRCS programs every year, with very little protest, than is in the total budget” of the LWCF, White said. (Congress appropriated $450 million to the fund for fiscal 2016. EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Program together were expected to cost more than $2.5 billion in FY2016.)
“We’ve got to ensure farmers have the resources they need to move forward on conservation, and that means adequate funding in the conservation programs,” White said.
Budget cuts already are challenging the agency’s ability to manage its programs, said White. The NRCS staff has been reduced from 12,233 to 11,657 since Obama took office. “Keebler elves aren’t coming out at night to design conservation practices. Having the responsibility to implement a program but not having the human resources to do so is a helluva spot to be in.”
Because the House and Senate Agriculture committees plan to begin work next year on a new farm bill to replace the 2014 law that expires in 2018, the White House will want to fill key political positions at USDA as quickly as possible, according to Ackerman.
Another 39 of the appointees are members of the government’s Senior Executive Service who fill positions just below the senior presidential appointees.
Ackerman said he hopes RMA has a new administrator in place by April, “so that crop insurance is well represented in the early discussions about the budget and farm bill.”
The budget pressures will be keen. In 2001, the agriculture committees had an additional $73.5 billion to spend on the farm bill that year because of the federal surplus. In 2017, with the government now running annual deficits of nearly $600 billion, the congressional committees will face demands for additional spending on cotton and dairy producers as well as for conservation programs.
Without presidential appointments filled, “it makes it very difficult for the administration to have a large policy voice on the farm bill,” Ackerman said. Agencies would be largely limited to providing answers to committees’ technical questions. Congress will move forward on the legislation regardless of whether USDA is staffed up, “because they have deadlines,” Ackerman said.
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