WASHINGTON, Jan. 25, 2017 - President Donald Trump’s team has been plotting to use his first budget plan to make a case that he’s serious about cutting spending and weeding out programs considered unnecessary. Word leaked just ahead of the president’s inauguration that advisers were developing proposals based on recommendations made last year by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that is particularly influential with hard-line conservatives on Capitol Hill.
While Heritage has called for dismantling most farm programs, the cuts included in its budget recommendations are directed elsewhere. They include eliminating conservation technical assistance, killing USDA’s catfish inspection program and ending discretionary programs in the department’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBCS).
It remains to be seen how many of the ideas actually get into the plan submitted to Congress, but even if they do, they are likely to be dead on arrival. Remember that in 2009, President Obama’s first budget called for slashing farm programs and crop insurance by $16 billion over 10 years. His proposals included denying direct payments to farmers with sales exceeding $500,000 per year, a relatively low level that would have shut out farms that accounted for nearly half the annual payments. Obama’s budget also would have slashed premium subsidies for crop insurance. The ideas went nowhere but they allowed Obama to position himself as serious about controlling spending.
House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, says the emerging Trump budget plan came up in discussions during a retreat on Monday for the panel’s Republicans, but he has not had any contact from Trump’s advisers. Conaway told his colleagues that they have to be prepared to make the case for agricultural spending, including crop insurance. “Each one of our programs has to be defended,” he said.
Daren Bakst, Heritage’s farm policy specialist, says he’s not sure what will ultimately get into the Trump budget plan, “but I certainly hope that these proposals will be included.”
Trump’s team may be reluctant to pick on rural programs, given that rural voters were critical to his victories in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. “A huge disinvestment in programs that stimulate the economy seems antithetical to Trump's thinking,” said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “Even though they are loved at Heritage, one wonders if that will really come through – maybe, but it isn’t what he ran on.”
The biggest USDA cut in Heritage’s plan, $784 million in one year, would come from killing conservation technical assistance. Heritage argues that landowners can pay private consultants for conservation assistance if they need it. Eliminating discretionary RBCS programs would save $146 million in fiscal year 2017.
Among Heritage’s complaints about those programs: Some of the assistance goes for biofuels and climate-related investments. “Rural businesses are fully capable of running themselves, investing, and seeking assistance through private means. The fact that these businesses are in rural areas does not change the fact that they can and should succeed on their own merits like any other business.”
Other proposals Heritage has made include suspending enforcement of the school nutrition standards implemented by the Obama administration; blocking use of marketing orders that limit fruit and vegetable supplies; prohibiting a net increase in federal lands, and killing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to acquire land for conservation purposes.
The land proposals will have some appeal to Western agriculture and energy interests, and other policy recommendations would have broader support among farm groups, although they are likely to be less necessary given steps the executive branch and the courts may take anyway, such as blocking the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule and the Labor Department’s overtime requirements.
Heritage also called for restricting the use of the “recapture” provision under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Farm groups claim that the Obama administration broadly interpreted the provision to at times require growers to get permits for changing crops, overriding the CWA exemptions for normal farming activities.
Trump’s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, deflected questions from the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday about the upcoming budget proposal, saying he was not familiar with the internal discussions.
He also told committee member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., that he was not ready to comment on farm bill spending, saying it had been several years since he had looked at the issues. But he planned to “maintain and improve and make more efficient” farm bill programs.
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