Washington Insider -- Tuesday

Office Perks for Cabinet Criticized

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

USDA Again Temporarily Suspends Continuous CRP Signup

Approval of new offers made under the continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) signup has again been temporarily suspended until sometime later in Fiscal 2018, according to USDA, and the processing of pending offers made before September 30 is currently underway.

USDA is accepting all pending continuous CRP enrollment offers that were made beginning on May 4, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2017. However, USDA noted that the Pollinator Habitat Initiative offers are being declined as the acreage enrollment goal for that effort has been met. USDA data showed that as of August, 441, 872 acres had been enrolled under the pollinator effort which had a 450,000 acre allocation.

CRP data has indicated that signup 50 for the continuous CRP effort – Fiscal 2017 – included 1.107 million acres being approved. But, since May 4, offers were taken in by USDA but not approved as the agency has sought to keep the acreage below the 24 million acre cap imposed via the 2014 Farm Bill.

Round Four of NAFTA Talks May Be Rough

North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiators are facing multiple sticking points when they meet October 11-15 in Arlington, Virginia, to continue hashing out details of NAFTA 2.0.

The fourth round will see U.S. offers on some of the most contentious issues in the talks, including rules of origin for autos, dispute settlement, and possibly a sunset clause that would terminate the agreement after five years unless the parties agree to renew it, analysts told Bloomberg BNA.

Moving forward with the U.S. proposals could lead to a "chaotic breakdown in the negotiations," John Murphy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's president for international policy, warned late last week. Others echoed those concerns. "This could be the round that blows up," an apparel industry source remarked.

Washington Insider: Office Perks for Cabinet Criticized

A number of media outlets are reporting recent criticism of administration travel costs. For example, the Washington Post says that this is one of the wealthiest cabinets in modern U.S. history but that criticism is widening over travel expenditures by some of the billionaires, budget hawks and business executives who head federal agencies.

Inspectors general in executive branch departments have opened at least five investigations into charter or military flights by Cabinet officials amounting to millions in federal spending, and the Post lists new examples of questioned expenditures. These include those of Energy Secretary Rick Perry and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt who faces expanding investigations into his travel by private jet.

These investigations “threaten to undermine a core pillar of Trump’s relationship with his base,” The Post thinks. The President has said he's "not happy" about some of this spending, the Post says.

Adding to the costs are travel accommodations for Cabinet aides, guests and security details, who accompany secretaries on all trips. Thus far, officials have assumed no financial responsibility for passengers on their flights, The Post says. Tom Price who resigned at the end of last month as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, ran up charter costs of more than $500,000 but pledged a $51,887 check to reimburse the government for his seats. An HHS spokesman told the Post that Price “was under no obligation” to pay but that this was “him wanting to make a gesture.”

To deal with fallout over travel costs, the White House has imposed a new approval process for charter jet travel by non-national-security Cabinet members. The protocol will be supervised by Chief of Staff John Kelly.

White House approval for military flights, which have long required special permission, came under question when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin ran up at least $800,000 on such trips, including a flight with his wife to visit the nation’s gold stash at Fort Knox. A report last week by the Treasury watchdog said the flights were legal based on Mnuchin’s schedule and need for secure communications, “but poorly justified.”

White House spokesman Raj Shah on Friday called the use of military planes for Cabinet and other essential travelers “sometimes an appropriate and necessary use of resources.” One indicator of how the administration has tried to curb expenditures, he said, is the sharp reduction of what are known as military air White House support missions — travel the president must request.

However, the Post says “some government accountability groups argue that the Cabinet behavior reflects the president’s own disconnect with government frugality, evidenced by his weekend trips to his private golf clubs and Mar-a-Lago, as well as the costly travels by Trump family members that must be monitored by government employees and Secret Service agents.”

The White House argues that the President’s travel is essential “Every weekend that he’s traveling, no matter where he is, the president is working,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week. Furthermore, “this is a president that is committed to helping move his agenda forward. And certainly I think that those weekends have been very successful in doing that,” she argued.

Cabinet leaders have historically been background players, pushing their boss’s agenda, the Post notes and observes that “Trump’s appointees have joined in his vow to control spending by imposing employee travel restrictions, cutting programs and leaving positions open.” However, “in their own travel, many have swapped the cramped cabins of commercial airplanes for private jets,” or have traveled widely while mixing official duties with vacations and political events.

Now, Congress is increasingly taking notice, the Post says. It notes that Reps. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and Grace F. Napolitano, D-Calif., wrote last week to the EPA’s inspector general that the Cabinet trips are “symptomatic of a troubling culture that appears to have swept through this administration.” In addition, it argues that travel by Trump and the Cabinet has “highlighted tensions among agencies and the White House over contradictory federal spending messages from Republican leaders.”

Well, this is not a new problem and it crops up here and again in most administrations and both parties. Still, it almost seems a self-inflicted wound this time, sure to be observed and reported. While the actual cost of federal perks is rather small relative to the size of federal program, the political “optics” can be quite costly—and, very difficult to ignore, Washington Insider believes.

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