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Vilsack defends agency cuts against criticism

2012_0329_senateag
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee
on the fiscal year 2013 budget at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington today.
At left is Chief Economist Joseph Glauber. (USDA/Lance Cheung)


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today defended USDA’s decision to close some Farm Service Agency county offices if they were within 20 miles of each other “as the crow flies,” and also the agency’s cuts to certain research programs.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., noted that one office in Arkansas is only 18.6 miles from another office “as the crow flies,” but 21.8 miles by road, and asked Vilsack if the agency had used the “as the crow flies” system in order to close more offices.

Vilsack replied that he and his staff had made sure “we were operating within the direction of Congress” in the 2008 farm bill on how to conduct office closures. The alternative, Vilsack said, was to create chaos in 2,000 offices through furloughs and layoffs.

Pressed repeatedly by Pryor on the office closures and the closure of research institutions on college campuses, Vilsack said, “Senator, these are tough decisions. You could find a reason to keep every one of them open but we don’t have the resources or the people.”

“We need at USDA to figure out how we can generate a lot of private sector activity in these communities so there are jobs and better incomes,” he added. “They rely on publicly supported institutions. We need to do a better job of encouraging private enterprise."

Pryor also asked if the closing of the Dale Bumpers Small Farms Institute and other facilities means that USDA is “getting out of the research business.”

“We have over 100 facilities and have asked for more money [for a competitive research grants program],” Vilsack said. “It doesn’t mean we have to have more facilities. It is unfair to suggest that we are going to get out of the research business. It is fair to point out that Congress has provided less money… I am not going to whine about it… I am going to manage it.”

Pryor also asked the secretary if he could not find money from some other program to cut in order to avoid cuts to research institutions

If he did that, Vilsack said, “You would be asking us why we were transferring money from another program that you like.”

In other interactions with senators, Vilsack:
  • Told Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wis., that he believes the agency budget request for the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC is adequate for this year, even though last year’s request proved to be too low and the agency had to transfer funds to avoid turning away people from the program. USDA has asked for $7.04 billion to serve 9.1 million participants.
  • Told Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Ray Blunt, R-Mo., that the increase cost of WIC in California has been due to some small stores dramatically overcharging for the WIC food package, and that Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has promised to examine how the state approves stores. Under WIC, mothers exchange coupons for food items and the stores then bill the state for the cost.
  • Told Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that USDA is continuously interacting with the Federal Communications Commission over that agency’s plans to change the use of the Universal Service Fund, and what impact that may have on utilities that are financed by the Rural Utilities Service.
  • Told Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., that USDA stands willing to help with problems with flooding on the lower Mississippi River, but that the federal government and the states should engage in a “much, much larger discussion on infrastructure problems in that area.
  • Told Cochran that Congress could help USDA with the issue of catfish inspection in the next farm bill by defining “catfish.” The 2008 farm bill said that catfish inspection should move from the Food and Drug Administration to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, but Vilsack said the agency has discovered there are 39 varieties of catfish. Cochran said that Mississippians can tell a catfish “by looking,” but Vilsack said the agency needs “clarity” on what Congress intended. Cochran noted that there has been substantial investment in catfish in the southern states. Trade partners, particularly Vietnam, have said the proposal to move the catfish inspection to USDA is a protectionist act.
  • Told Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., that the crop insurance program could be maintained with the cuts that President Barack Obama’s budget has proposed, and declined Hoeven’s request that USDA support the addition of potatoes to the WIC program food package. Vilsack said that WIC is a supplement, that it should encourage mothers and children to eat dark green and orange vegetables they are not already eating, and that studies show the mothers and children are already eating potatoes.