The Trump administration is planning a massive reorganization of the Agriculture Department, and key parts of it could be announced as early as Thursday, when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue makes a trip to Cincinnati that has already been promoted as a reorganization announcement, a Democratic source has told DTN.
Some of the statements by the Democratic source are “off the mark,” a USDA official said, but he declined to provide details on what might be erroneous until later today.
Several sources have said that Perdue will announce the creation of an undersecretary for trade, a position that was included in the 2014 farm bill.
Under the reorganization, the Foreign Agriculture Service, currently under the agriculture undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, would be supervised by the undersecretary for trade.
The proposal would zero out the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program, which was already announced in Trump’s initial “skinny budget,” but would also zero out the P.480 food aid program, which has existed since the 1950s as the U.S. government’s main food aid program, the Democratic source said.
Under the reorganization plan, the Foreign Agricultural Service would then focus on marketing U.S. agricultural products rather than a combination of marketing and food aid, the Democratic source said. The idea that USDA’s role in food aid would be reduced would please development specialists who believe the U.S. government should focus on helping farmers in developing countries improve production rather than shipping U.S. food products to needy areas.
Development specialists favor the U.S. Agency for International Development as the agency to distribute food aid and to provide assistance to farmers in developing countries to increase their productivity. But there have been reports that the Trump administration wants to gut the USAID programs.
The Trump reorganization plan also includes splitting up the natural resources and environment mission area so that there would be no undersecretary for natural resources and environment, the Democratic source said. The Natural Resources and Conservation Service would be placed under an undersecretary for farm services, who would also supervise the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency. That idea would be controversial with conservationists and environmentalists who take the view that there are conflicts between production agriculture and conservation of soil, water and other characteristics of land.
The other major division of the natural resources and environment mission area, the U.S. Forest Service, would become a stand-alone agency, the Democratic source said. It is unclear whether the chief of the U.S. Forest Service would have the rank of an undersecretary.
In addition, the rural development mission area, which includes functions as diverse as rural electricity, telephone and broadband services and energy development, would be downgraded to an office and lose its undersecretary.
It is unclear how much of this agenda the Trump administration could achieve without congressional action. The USDA was last reorganized in 1994.
An agricultural lobbyist noted that the law limits the number of undersecretary positions at USDA, which may be why there are proposals to end the undersecretary positions for natural resources and environment and for rural development in order to establish positions for an undersecretary for trade and possibly one in charge of the U.S. Forest Service.
A Washington lawyer with knowledge of the USDA and its organizational structure said figuring out what the administration can do on its own is “complicated, and would require a review of a lot of statutes.”
The lawyer added that, generally, much of USDA’s statutory authority resides with “the secretary,” who delegates authority to undersecretaries.
This is enshrined in regulations issued by the secretary that are published and publicly available on a Cornell University website, the lawyer noted.
But the lawyer warned that, when Congress drafts the farm bill, “it’s reasonable for Congress to assume that certain functions would be implemented by existing mission areas/org charts which have the appropriate level of experience and know-how. Even if the secretary has statutory authority to make certain organizational changes, if Congress disagrees, it can reverse or amend them or even restrict the discretion that future secretaries have over such matters."
The Democratic source, who said he had compiled his list of organizational changes from conversations with several people, said that he believed that USDA officials had briefed key members of Congress and farm leaders in recent days. But key Democrats on Capitol Hill declined to comment Wednesday, and several key farm lobbyists said they had not been informed about the proposals.
One lobbyist said that the cuts to food aid were not surprising since the administration also plans to propose zeroing out the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development Program, which are used to sell U.S. agricultural products overseas.
In his public statements, Perdue has emphasized the importance of personal relationships and said that he and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who has been nominated as U.S. ambassador to China, will convince the Chinese to import U.S. beef.
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