WASHINGTON, June 11, 2017 - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue heads back to Capitol Hill this week, and he’s likely to face renewed challenges on the president’s budget and proposals to cut and reorganize rural development programs.

Perdue will testify Tuesday before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, whose ranking Democrat, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, has joined the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, in sharply criticizing the rural development plans.

In a letter to Perdue on Friday, the senators pressed their concerns about Perdue’s plans to eliminate the undersecretary of rural development as well as the 30 percent cut in spending that President Trump proposed.

“While we appreciate your comments that rural development is a personal priority of yours, given the magnitude of these responsibilities, it is essential that the Senate retain its oversight obligations to review and confirm any nominee that would serve as the leader of the Rural Development mission area,” the senators wrote.

Trump’s budget would eliminate numerous popular programs across the RD mission area, including Business and Industry loans and the Value-Added Producer grants. Overall funding to support Rural Business-Cooperative Service programs would be slashed from $157 million to just $12 million in 2018.

While USDA’s workforce would be reduced by 5.5 percent, or 5,263 employees, under the budget, the RD staff would be slashed by nearly 20 percent, dropping from 4,825 to 3,900. Perdue argues that the reorganization would elevate the importance of RD programs because the assistant that he plans to appoint to oversee them would have walk-in privileges with him.

During a hearing before House appropriators on May 24, a day after the budget was released, Perdue appeared to back away on some of the proposals, affirming that crop insurance and other farm programs are “extremely important.”

The budget would cut crop insurance by $29 billion over 10 years and eliminate the $1.7 billion Food for Peace program as well as two programs that many farm groups consider critical for developing export markets: the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development Cooperator Program.

Even as appropriators hold the budget hearings this week – EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also will testify before subcommittees this week – GOP leaders are struggling to make progress on spending and tax reform, and some conservatives are pushing for cuts to food stamps that could complicate the writing of a new farm bill.

Work on the actual spending legislation has been delayed because neither chamber has developed a budget that would set the spending limits.

Leaders of the House Freedom Caucus are calling on GOP leaders to consider slashing welfare spending by $400 billion as a way to reach consensus on the budget and to offset the revenue loss from cutting taxes. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, proposed legislation that, among other things, would tighten work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

“There is a budget deal that could happen if you adopt Jim’s plan,” said the caucus chairman, Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is cosponsoring the Jordan legislation. “The American people have waited long enough.” Meadows was speaking at a Heritage Foundation event on Friday with Jordan and another co-sponsor of the bill, Dave Brat, R-Va.

Jordan’s proposal to cut SNAP could be carried out separately from the farm bill as part of the fiscal 2018 budget reconciliation process that Republicans want to use to pass tax reform. But the cut would anger Democrats and other supporters of the program.

Also this week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act, which would extend the Reid vapor pressure waiver to E15, allowing wider use during summer months.

Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican who is the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, said it would “ensure a fair playing field for higher ethanol blends, expanding fuel choices and strengthening our energy diversity,”

Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, June 12

International Dairy Foods Association Regulatory RoundUP, Loews Madison.

4 p.m. - USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.

Tuesday, June 13

United Fresh Produce Association convention, through Thursday, Chicago.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) holds second public meeting on proposed changes to its regulations for agricultural biotechnology, in Davis, Calif. Webcast available.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing on small watershed infrastructure, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection 2008 Rayburn.

10:30 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, 124 Dirksen.

2:30 p.m. - Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, 192 Dirksen.

Wednesday, June 14

United Fresh convention.

9 a.m. - House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Tillerson on the foreign affairs budget, 2172 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the  Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act, which would extend the Reid vapor pressure waiver to E15, 406 Dirksen.

2 p.m. - House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations hearing with Tillerson, 2359 Rayburn.

Thursday, June 15

United Fresh convention.

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.

9:30 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on agricultural research, 328A Russell.

10 a.m. - House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, 1324 Longworth.

1 p.m. - House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, 2007 Rayburn.

Friday, June 16

APHIS holds third public meeting on biotech regulation, Riverdale, Md.


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