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Wanted for USDA Trade Chief: A Battler

Farm groups persuaded Congress to create a high-level USDA post to promote U.S. agricultural exports. Lawmakers, in putting up money for the office, want a fearless advocate on the job. “Be cognizant and steadfast in raising trade enforcement issues related to the agricultural practices of foreign nations,” says the House Appropriations Committee in a report that accompanies the USDA-FDA funding bill for fiscal 2018.

Appropriators are scheduled to vote today on the $145 billion bill. With committee approval, the bill would be ready for a floor vote. The bill would keep two U.S. food aid programs in operation, albeit with less money, in defiance of President Trump’s proposal to eliminate them. The legislation also rejects most of Trump’s plan to terminate rural water, housing, and business development programs.

After telling the undersecretary for trade to work with other Trump trade officials to knock down trade barriers, the Appropriations report says, “The committee further encourages the undersecretary to prioritize trade issues related to biotechnology and minimizing trade disruptions from avian influenza by pursuing localization policies.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, carrying out a provision of the 2014 farm law, reorganized USDA’s command structure in May to create the trade undersecretary’s post. Effectively, it replaced an undersecretary slot devoted to rural economic development. Perdue folded rural development into his personal office, with an assistant, Anne Hazlett, in charge of rural programs. Rural advocacy groups appealed to the Appropriations Committee to retain the undersecretary’s office but found no support.

The new undersecretary, who will oversee food aid, farm export, and market development programs, would get $875,000 to set up and run the new office, roughly the same amount given to other undersecretaries for their offices’ salaries and expenses.

“The focus of this office should be not only the promotion and sales of American agricultural products but also trade enforcement and related activities, which will help level the playing field for U.S. agricultural interests in international markets,” says the committee report. As an expression of congressional intent, committee reports are strong guidance to agencies, although they are not binding.

As part of USDA reorganization, Perdue put all of the department’s land stewardship programs under the control of the undersecretary who oversees crop subsidies and crop insurance. Appropriators said they expected the undersecretary “to equally focus on each mission” of farm production and conservation. The report asks for briefings “on preliminary strategies and plans for the reorganization related to the consolidation, co-location, relocation, and closure of field offices and staff; and the development and combination of information technology systems, specifically farm program modernization.”

Perdue has described “one-stop shopping” as one of the expected fruits of reorganization but his redrawing the lines of command has not changed USDA’s network of local offices for agencies that operate different programs affecting farmers, such as crop supports and soil erosion. The agencies often have offices in the same town but not the same building, and their employees are not expected to handle another agency’s work. Congress routinely has barred USDA from closing local offices without the consent of lawmakers.

To watch a webcast of the House Appropriation Committee meeting on the USDA-FDA funding bill, scheduled for 10 a.m. ET, click here.

To read the committee report on the USDA-FDA funding bill, click here.

To read the text of the USDA-FDA funding bill, click here.

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