Perdue doesn’t defend Trump USDA budget
May 25, 2017
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue did not attempt to defend President Donald Trump's budget requests for the Agriculture Department in the face of withering criticism when he testified before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee today.
Perdue's written testimony focused on the provisions for fiscal year 2018 and not on the White House proposal to make cuts to nearly every Agriculture Department and to cut more than 5,000 employees department-wide.
In verbal testimony, Perdue said, "We do have a dilemma in this country of how we right-size the budget," but he did not disagree with many statements by subcommittee members in favor of USDA programs.
House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., in an opening statement, welcomed Perdue warmly but noted that the budget would give the subcommittee "plenty" to discuss. Aderholt also noted that the White House had used a "scalpel" on some programs but that some other programs with good records, such as the water and wastewater program for low-income communities, got "axed."
Aderholt also noted that the administration intends to eliminate international food aid.
From left, USDA Chief Economist Robert Johansson, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and USDA Budget Director Mike Young testify today before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)
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Later in the hearing, Aderholt said he was particularly disturbed by the administration's proposal to eliminate the Food for Peace program, which sends American food to needy countries in American ships. Instead, Aderholt noted, the administration proposes to shift remaining food aid authority to the U.S. Agency for International Development international disaster account, which would use cash to purchase food.
"Is the alternative to buy food from our competitors?" Aderholt asked, calling the proposal a repeat of an Obama administration proposal "that went nowhere." The proposal runs "entirely counter" to the administration's "Buy American, Hire American" policies, he said, and asked if the administration would prefer to support American farmers, ranchers and the maritime community.
"I think your comments are essentially irrefutable," Perdue replied. "I think we would love to have American foods fulfill our humanitarian mission."
House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., also told Perdue that he had come to the subcommittee with "a budget proposal that will increase hunger worldwide" and create burdens for rural America.
The most scathing criticism came from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a former chairwoman of the subcommittee, who talked about the administration's proposal for the states to pay 25 percent of the benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
"I will be direct about my view of this budget document, and my hope is that this budget document is dead on arrival. Because I believe it cruel, I believe it heartless, and I believe it inhumane," DeLauro said.
Noting that Perdue had told the House Agriculture Committee last week that SNAP "has been a very important, effective program" and that "we have no proposed changes, you don't try to fix things that aren't broken" and that he said his USDA motto is "do right and feed everyone," DeLauro asked, "Do you still feel those words to be true?"
Perdue replied "absolutely," prompting DeLauro to say, "The reason I ask is because this statement is not at all aligned with the administration's proposal to completely gut the food stamp program. If you feel that the SNAP program is not broken and that we should do right by feeding everyone, why are we proposing a $193 billion cut – over 25 percent – and take away the benefits to some of our most vulnerable populations?"
Perdue asked DeLauro to "notice, the FY18 budget fully funds the SNAP as it has been. The legislative proposal going forward is obviously something you and all of your members of Congress will deal with and have your stamp upon that. I want to make the distinction."
DeLauro responded, "That's great, because there are a number of us who, in fact, will put a stamp on the program. $193 billion – a 25 percent cut – to a program that feeds people in the United States is outrageous."
DeLauro also said she was upset that the administration proposed eliminating the waivers that states can use on the restrictions on SNAP beneficiaries known as able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDS.
Perdue responded, "Congresswoman, I want you to know that I admire and respect your passion and your compassion. And I think again, just for a little difference of perspective, certainly, I believe the best way to provide for poverty and hunger in this country, is turning the economy around with good job dignity."
DeLauro said, "I concur, but there are no jobs at the moment and, in the meantime, people will starve."
Aderholt noted that some of the SNAP provisions go back to the 1996 welfare reform bill that President Bill Clinton signed. DeLauro noted that she had voted against the 1996 bill and that she had succeeded in the 2008 farm bill to get food stamps indexed for inflation.
After DeLauro left, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., defended the administration proposal to require the states to pay 25 percent of the benefits and said he was glad the administration is "restoring sanity to the program."
But after the hearing, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, told The Hagstrom Report that requiring the states to pay 25 percent of benefits "would be really tough on a state like mine, where there is no money to spare."
Noting that Perdue has said he supports agricultural research, conservation and other programs, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., ranking member on the subcommittee, told Perdue, his fellow Georgian, "We are severely disappointed, as I am sure you were, to see that all these programs face severe cuts in the budget."
Bishop acknowledged that the administration wants to spend more money on defense, homeland security and veterans, but he added, "It seems the administration is doing that at the expense of the citizens we are supposed to protect."
Bishop also told Perdue he was upset by the proposal to eliminate the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development Program because they help, among other things, Georgia pecans. Perdue said he wants to work with the commodity cooperator groups but that statistics used to show the importance of MAP and FMD in increasing exports may be "hyperbole."
Perdue added that he wants to be held accountable on trade issues.
"You are not going to see exports decrease," Perdue said.
Bishop also urged Perdue to be an advocate with lawmakers on changing the laws on how Cubans can finance the importation of U.S. food products so that U.S. farmers can export more.
Praised by Aderholt for his announcement relaxing some Obama-era school meals rules, Perdue said his next step on that issue will be a nationwide listening session with school food service professionals, and a reduction of regulations that have required some schools to hire staff to comply with them.
"The waste cans have been the only ones getting healthy on these new dietary guidelines," Perdue said, adding that he wants to "change global eating habits" while making sure the schools provide tasty meals so that children do not throw out the food and eat fast food on the way home.
Asked by Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., about the proposed 36 percent cut in crop insurance, Perdue replied, "You won't get any disagreement with me on the value of crop insurance." The move away from direct payments in the 2014 farm bill was "good," Perdue said, while the budget "retools" crop insurance with means testing.
Crop insurance and other farm programs will be determined by the next farm bill, Perdue said, adding his job as Agriculture secretary is to consult with members as they develop that bill.
Perdue also maintained that his proposal to turn the undersecretary for rural development into an assistant reporting directly to him would strengthen the program.
If someone were offered a job as an "assistant to the CEO" from whom he could get a "go or no-go decision" or "reporting to a senior vice president" who might take months to make a decision, the person would prefer the job as an assistant, Perdue said. That was apparently a reference to his view that undersecretaries report to the Agriculture deputy secretary.
Noting that when he visited Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., last weekend in Nebraska no one could get a cell phone signal, Perdue said he regards broadband as "the sewer, the roads, the power of a previous generation."
While some people say that government should be operated like a business, "government is not like a business," Perdue said, explaining that one thing government can do is offer incentives to get broadband service to rural America.
Pingree told Perdue she was bothered by proposals to cut several programs that benefit organic producers, and he said he would consider – but could not guarantee – filling three vacant positions in the National Organic Program.
Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said the proposal to move the catfish inspection program from the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service back to the Food and Drug Administration is "backwards."
Perdue said the administration sees the inspection at USDA as "a duplication issue," but Palazzo said Congress took catfish inspection away from FDA because it was not doing a good job.
FSIS is doing a "fantastic job" on catfish inspection, Perdue said.
"I appreciate your compliment," Perdue said.
Palazzo also said that USDA's hiring freeze has reduced customer service in county offices.
Perdue said he had not "drilled down" on that hiring issue, but that he has proposed moving the Natural Resources Conservation Service into the same mission area with the Farm Service Agency in order to increase customer service so that if one employee is out due to illness or a "child issue," someone from the other agency can step in and provide service.
"Co-locating is more than physical – it is heart, soul and spirit," Perdue said.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talks with Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)
Rep. Tim Rooney, R-Fla., pointed out that the budget eliminates a program that addresses citrus greening and asked Perdue to visit his district "to look into the eyes of growers – they are in a desperate moment."
Perdue told Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., that he hired a female lawyer from Nebraska to develop a program to provide labor for farmers.
Perdue also said that, although the budget calls for the elimination of several rural development programs, he does not intend to reduce staffing in that area – including local offices.
After the hearing, when a reporter attempted to ask Perdue about cuts to farm programs, he smiled and said simply, "I support the president's budget."