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USDA reorganization of Rural Development concerns supporters

June 01, 2017
By: Ellen Marrison

While U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has announced that the Rural Development agency would be elevated under a reorganization plan because it would be placed under the direct oversight of the Secretary, not everyone is viewing the consolidation as an elevation. The reorganization plan details efforts to “improve the effectiveness of USDA efforts” and includes plans to realign the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service under a newly created Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. While the report states that the reorganization will elevate Rural Development (RD), in the process it loses its own undersecretary. The USDA Office of Communications, in response to an SSTI request for clarification of the change, responded: “The agencies contained within Rural Development will remain as currently constituted and be led by the Assistant to the Secretary, who will have rural prosperity as a sole focus. Rural Development is gaining power, access, and direct influence. Secretary Perdue is a son of rural America and believes fully that this is an increase in stature for rural issues at USDA.”

The undersecretary of RD had provided leadership for three USDA mission areas charged with improving the economic well-being of rural America: the Rural Housing Service, the Rural Utilities Service and the Rural Business-Cooperative Service. Together, these mission areas provided infrastructure investments in the form of loans and grants for rural housing, high-speed broadband access, telephone, electric and water utilities, renewable energy generation and conservation, local and regional food systems, community facilities, and small business development in rural America. The president’s proposed FY 2018 budget reduces discretionary funding in those areas by an estimated $481 million, even when accounting for a newly announced Rural Economic Infrastructure grant program of $162 million. That program would draw from the following program authorities: Distance Learning and Telemedicine, Broadband, Community Facilities, and housing repair for very low income residents. Of the $162 million, up to $80 million would be set aside to assist the Appalachian region.

The USDA could not speculate on the budget proposal implications. In an emailed response to SSTI’s inquiry regarding the budget, the Office of Communications wrote, “In regards to the president’s proposed budget we still have to see how the appropriators in Congress will make their mark on it. We cannot know what form the final budget will take, and so it is premature to comment on the specific impacts it may have on any USDA program. Secretary Perdue has communicated to all USDA staff that there is no sense in sugar coating the budget, but he will be as transparent as possible throughout the budget process.”

The day after the reorganization was announced by Perdue, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a nonprofit alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources and rural communities, wrote that the reorganization was a “misguided decision” and that “while the administration has attempted to spin the demotion of Rural Development as an ‘elevation’…it is in fact a trading away of rural, domestic priorities in favor of boosting international trade.” While others in the ag community praised the focus on trade, and the NSAC said it, too, has advocated for a greater coordination among the agencies, the decreased emphasis on rural development, along with proposed cuts in funding leaves many worried.

Perdue submitted the reorganization plan under an executive order to reorganize the executive branch (Executive Order 13781), which proposed a reorganization of international trade functions and establishing an Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, who would be appointed by the president.

Anyone may comment on the reorganization plan by leaving their input on a page hosted by the White House. Ideas must be submitted by June 12.

rural, usda