Former Governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue’s swearing-in marks a big change for the only agency led all eight years of President Obama’s presidency by the same Secretary. And as the Sonny rises, he can usher in a new era at USDA if he pursues these taxpayer friendly reforms.
Remember the real customer (and boss) is the taxpayer. Too often agencies employ a “customer service” model where they determine success by whether the businesses, state agencies, or other direct beneficiaries of the federal spending are happy. Left out of the equation is whether the program is effectively helping achieve important benefits for the folks signing those checks—taxpayers. So new agricultural income entitlement programs that were supposed to reduce federal spending on agribusiness are $7.5 billion more costly than promised and that’s good because the recipients are happy. Dairy and cotton programs coming in below budget, BAD! Now as the Agriculture Committees have started the 2018 farm bill process, lobbyists for everything from cotton to canola have demanded more cash. Instead of catering to every special interest, the Secretary should guide USDA toward a safety net for agricultural businesses that helps where they can’t help themselves and is in line with what we can afford. Dollars matter, but results matter even more.
Speaking of results, get a greater return for our investment. The 100,000 employees of the USDA dole out more than $160 billion in funding every year. From conservation programs aimed at reducing agricultural pollution, to research into plant disease, to nutrition programs helping the poor afford food, taxpayers invest a lot of money and expect results. So let us know exactly what we’re getting. Instead of reporting acres covered and dollars spent, actually measure the amount of soil runoff reduced, toxic algae blooms avoided, or farm land preserved. Federally subsidized crop insurance is an important program, so keep up the progress on reducing fraud and abuse. Maybe explore opportunities to modernize delivery of the program to make it more efficient for both taxpayers and farmers and ranchers.
Show some restraint. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Under an 80 year old law passed in the midst of the Great Depression, the Secretary of Agriculture has broad authority to use the federal Treasury to manipulate markets at the behest of special interests. In 2015 Secretary Vilsack used it to go against Congress’s will and authorize $100 million for building pumps to blend high octane ethanol at gas stations. He also used his USDA-managed slush fund to repeatedly purchase “excess” cheese in an attempt to artificially prop up milk prices. Secretary Purdue should end the practice of using tax dollars to pick winners and losers based on who can hire the best lobbyists.
Cut down on cronyism. With a nearly $20 trillion national debt, the Secretary needs to work with Congress to end programs that just make no sense. While agricultural trade groups like the fact we spend $200 million every year advertising their products overseas, multi-billion dollar companies can pay for their own commercials. Protectionist policies that require folks in disaster-stricken areas wait weeks or months for U.S. grain to be shipped on U.S.-flagged ships instead of being purchased closer to home, should be abolished. And don’t forget, the United States Forest Service is part of the USDA. Instead of getting a fair return for the harvest of timber in national forests, the Forest Service has a long history of losing money on timber sales. In the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest, alone taxpayers are losing more than $30 million a year on such sales. Stopping below-cost timber sales there and around the country can’t come soon enough.
With the Agriculture Committees already on their way to crafting a 2018 farm bill, Secretary Purdue is stepping into a legislative storm. But a new set of leaders is an opportunity for a fresh start. If Secretary Purdue follows these principles to improve the USDA, the outlook for taxpayers just might be sunny.
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