by Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) — Congress wants USDA to operate like a business, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is complaining that Congress is willing to spend $1.5 million on outside studies to duplicate work his department has already finished.
Vilsack, in a phone interview with DTN on Thursday, expressed his frustration with some of the policy riders in the $1.1 trillion funding bill Congress approved. The policy restrictions ranged from blocking the secretary from creating a new beef checkoff to preventing the Farm Service Agency from eliminating its smallest offices nationally.
“I would say that it's somewhat puzzling when Congress says 'operate USDA like a business' and then doesn't give you the tools and flexibility to do so,” the secretary said.
Closing FSA offices is politically challenging anytime, regardless of whether anyone works there or not. The budget agreement puts a “temporary moratorium” on closing FSA offices or relocating employees” until a comprehensive assessment of FSA workload is completed by USDA. Congress directed USDA spend $900,000 to bring in an outside group to study local office workloads and staffing after USDA already has conducted its own assessment.
“Rather than having basic faith and confidence in the study, Congress is now saying $900,000 is going to go towards this review,” Vilsack said.
FSA has 31 offices that have no full-time staff. Dozens more have single employees while other offices have heavy workloads but are short on staff. That translates into a lower level of service, the secretary said. “It's not that we want to eliminate service,” he said. “We want to improve service.”
Yet another review will go on with the new undersecretary of trade position created in the new farm law. Congress will spend $600,000 for another study to determine that office's budget needs. “So that's $1.5 million Congress has directed we spend for things we are already doing and in which we were ahead of them by several years. So it's a head scratcher is what it is.”
The funding numbers for agencies such as FSA and Rural Development offices make it appear they are getting increases. However, Vilsack said numbers come through changes in accounts involving decentralized rental payments for office. All of the 45 million square feet of rental space for USDA had been paid from one account, but that's been eliminated. So some agency individual budgets went up as a result.
“It simply means they are now responsible for paying their own rent costs,” he said.
Vilsack made it clear he doesn't think studies were the best use for another $1.5 million. If the roles were reversed and USDA had spent $1.5 million to authorize new studies to follow up ones already completed, members of Congress would question the redundancy.
“Congress would be critical and they would be legitimately critical of that effort,” he said. “The reality is that's $1.5 million we could have used for a multitude of purposes.”
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