WASHINGTON, May 24, 2017 - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue backed away from significant cuts in President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget, affirming that crop insurance and other farm programs are “extremely important.” 

Making his first appearance before lawmakers who write the Agriculture Department's annual spending bill, Perdue specifically declined to defend Trump’s proposals to cut crop insurance by $29 billion by 10 years and to eliminate the $1.7 billion Food for Peace program, which supplies U.S.-grown commodities to alleviate hunger overseas. 

Perdue also emphasized to the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that he had only been on the job for five weeks and said he needed to review key budget provisions, including the proposal to cut USDA’s work force by 5.5 percent, or about 5,500 full-time jobs. 

While he said it was critical to address the federal budget deficit, Perdue also assured the subcommittee that he would “take what you appropriators believe is in the best interest of fulfilling the responsibilities” of USDA. “I’m going to make it go as far as, and as beneficial to American citizens, as possible.” 

The budget proposes to cut farm bill programs by $38 billion, not including nutrition assistance, and impose new restrictions on crop insurance, including a $40,000 cap on premium subsidies, and eliminate the Harvest Price Option for revenue policies. The budget also proposes to end premium subsidies and commodity program benefits to farmers with annual income of more than $500,000.

When Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., pressed Perdue on the importance of the crop insurance program, Perdue responded, “Sir, I think you won’t get any disagreement from me regarding the value of crop insurance.” 

Perdue said it was important that farm programs don’t distort planting decisions, but he acknowledged that “farming is expensive and has a lot of risk involved in it. I doubt many of us today would want to put all of our equity in the ground looking for a seed to come up each year."

When the chairman of the subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said the proposal to kill Food for Peace ran “entirely counter” to Trump’s “buy American” policy, Perdue responded, “Your comments are essentially irrefutable.”

The harshest criticism for the budget came from Democrats on a set of proposals to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $193 billion over 10 years, a cut of nearly 30 percent. Much of the reduction would come from requiring states to pay a portion of the program costs and allowing them to reduce benefits. 

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., declared, “This budget is evil.” She said the SNAP cut was “a cruel and heartless turning of our backs on people in this nation who are hungry.” The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Sanford Bishop of Georgia, said the SNAP proposals “do not match our nation’s values.”

House Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat who attended the hearing, said the budget would “increase hunger worldwide,” a reference to the proposals to kill Food for Peace and the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program as well as to shrink SNAP.

Perdue didn’t discuss the SNAP proposals in detail, but he said benefits were intended to provide temporary assistance during periods of unemployment. The best way to alleviate poverty and hunger “is turning the economy around," he told DeLauro. 

Both Democrats and Republicans, including Aderholt, raised concerns about proposals to cut rural development programs, and some lawmakers also raised questions about Perdue’s plans to eliminate the undersecretary for rural development. 

Aderholt, who said Trump's USDA budget proposed some of its steepest cuts in “popular programs with proven track records,” noted that the president wanted to eliminate the Rural Business Service as well as end grants and loans for rural drinking water and wastewater projects. 

Aderholt also questioned Perdue’s proposed job cuts at USDA, saying the budget “makes numerous assumptions about reductions in staffing levels that seem unrealistic to achieve.” 

Perdue noted that the budget proposed a new $162 million Rural Economic Infrastructure grant program that would support initiatives under existing programs, including distance learning, telemedicine and community facilities. 

He defended his reorganization plan, assuring lawmakers that the new assistant to the secretary for rural development would have walk-in privileges with him and that the programs would be managed  “faster, quicker and better.” He also said there would be no change to the programs’ field office structure. 

On other issues, Perdue passed up a chance to defend proposals in the budget to kill two export assistance programs, the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Cooperator Program. Perdue told Bishop that his concerns about ending the programs were “legitimate.” 

Perdue said the administration was committed to increasing agricultural trade. "You’re not going to see exports decrease, we’re going to sell it,” he said.

Perdue said he was still considering what to do with a proposed rule issued by the Obama administration in December to regulate the “tournament” ranking system used by poultry processors in compensating produces. Perdue said he was listening to both sides of the issue, but cautioned, “I think it would be unwise to unwind a system that has been essentially effective.” 

Perdue pledged to “double down” on enforcement of organic certification of imported products. The Washington Post reported recently that nonorganic soybeans and corn were being imported into the United States and fraudulently sold as organic. “The public depends on USDA for the organic label and we take that very seriously,” he said.