WASHINGTON, March 16, 2017 - President Trump is proposing to slash the Agriculture Department’s field staff and also make deep reductions in research, rural development and international food aid.
A 62-page budget summary released by the White House is skimpy on details but it calls for a $4.7 billion, or nearly 21 percent, reduction in USDA’s “discretionary” accounts, programs where spending levels are not mandated through the farm bill and other laws. The White House plans to propose reductions in mandatory programs later.
Trump’s “America First” budget doesn’t specify the size of many of the cuts, but it does say it would save $498 million by eliminating USDA loans and grants for rural water and wastewater projects. Trump also wants to kill the $200 million-a-year McGovern-Dole international school feeding program.
The budget calls for shrinking USDA county offices to “reflect reduced Rural Development workload, and encourage private sector conservation planning.”
Trump’s USDA budget proposal doesn’t include the nation's flagship international food aid program, Food for Peace, which cost $1.7 billion last year. The White House folded that program into the budget for the State Department, which includes the U.S. Agency for International Development. The State/USAID budget would be reduced by 29 percent, mostly through deep reductions in foreign aid, according to the summary. The budget doesn't specify what would happen to Food for Peace.
A USDA spokesman referred questions about the budget to the Office of Management and Budget.
The Environmental Protection Agency would be cut by 31 percent, the largest reduction for any major agency or department. The proposal would preserve funding for water infrastructure but discontinue climate-related programs, slash the agency's enforcement office by 24 percent, and eliminate funding for the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay restoration programs.
White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the government-wide cuts are needed to pay for a $52 billion, or 10 percent, increase in defense spending and a $2.8 billion, or 7 percent, increase for the Department of Homeland Security.
“There’s no question this is a hard power budget. It’s not a soft power budget,” said Mulvaney.
He also said that infrastructure programs were being reduced ahead of a broad proposal to fund those needs in other ways through legislation Congress is expected to consider next year.
But House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, released a statement saying he was "concerned that the cuts, while relatively small in the context of the total federal budget, could hamper some vital work" at USDA. He didn't specify any specific cuts that concerned him but noted that farm bill programs took a cut in 2014 and that the farm economy is in a downturn.
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, called the budget “deeply disappointing" and said Trump “has put the needs of rural America and agriculture on the backburner, and, in many cases, on the chopping block.”
Greg Fogel, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the “detrimental cuts” were aimed “right at the people who helped bring him to the White House – America's farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.”
The budget summary said the McGovern-Dole program should be killed because it “lacks evidence that it is being effectively implemented to reduce food insecurity.” The program’s namesakes, the late Sen. George McGovern and former Sen. Robert Dole, were awarded the World Food Prize in 2008 for their work in creating the program. Dole, 93, was a vocal supporter of Trump during the campaign.
The White House also has been seeking to kill Food for Peace as well, according to sources. Some 30 senators, led by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, signed a letter to the White House arguing against making any cut in Food for Peace.
In a preamble to the budget document, Trump wrote that it "includes deep cuts to foreign aid. It is time to prioritize the security and well-being of Americans, and to ask the rest of the world to step up and pay its fair share."
A former chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that controls USDA’s budget, Kansas Republican Jerry Moran, said there is no way that a budget with major cuts in discretionary spending can get enacted. “I do not see any path by which that becomes” law, he said. He noted that much of the non-mandatory budget at USDA is made up of salaries for the staff needed to administer farm, conservation and nutrition programs.
Moran is among the bipartisan group of senators who have signed the letter opposing a cut in Food for Peace.
The lack of budget detail left many unaswered questions. For example, the budget would leave Agriculture and Food Research initiative untouched at $350 million, but the summary didn't say how much other USDA research programs would be reduced. AFRI provides competitive research grants to universities.
Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican who chairs of the House Agriculture subcommittee for research, said he hopes that AFRI funding can even be increased by Congress. The program was authorized at $700 million in the 2014 farm bill.
The increased spending for Homeland Security is earmarked to extend the border wall and to ramp up immigration enforcement. The budget would fund the hiring of 500 new Border Patrol agents and 1,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in 2018. Some $15 million is earmarked to begin implementation of mandatory nationwide use of the E-Verify program.
Farmers who rely on illegal immigrant labor say that mandatory E-Verify would devastate their operations unless the H-2A guest worker is dramatically expanded.
Counties in Western states would be hit by a reduction in the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which compensates for lost property taxes on federal lands.