Changes to Tout Trade at USDA

Perdue Plans Major Reorganization of Trade, Farm Programs, Rural Development

USDA would be reorganized to create a new undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs under a plan proposed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. (Logo and photo courtesy of USDA)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The Trump administration is planning a massive reorganization of USDA that will officially be rolled out by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during a trip to Cincinnati that has already been promoted as a reorganization announcement.

USDA detailed the changes in a report to Congress on Thursday, stating the steps being taken "are the down payment on improving the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the Department." USDA would be working with Congress, stakeholders and employees over the next several months to implement the plans.

The proposal marks the first major reorganization at USDA since 1994.

Some of the changes are specifically focused on creating the position of undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs that was written into the 2014 farm bill but never appointed by the Obama administration. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Perdue highlighted the importance of trade and stated that USDA would move forward with the creation of the new position as a key element in the reorganization.

"Rather than simply add an eighth undersecretary, the department is remaking responsibilities," Perdue wrote. "The result will be the same number of positions, but an overall organization that is better aligned and more consistent in its approach."

Perdue highlighted the importance of trade to farmers, citing that agriculture is responsible for $135 billion in U.S. exports, up from $71 billion a decade ago. Further, USDA stated in its report to Congress that every $1 billion in ag exports supports about 8,000 U.S. jobs.

Under the reorganization, the Foreign Agriculture Service would be supervised by the undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs. The Foreign Agricultural Service would then focus on marketing U.S. agricultural products rather than a combination of marketing and food aid. In the report to Congress, USDA stated that the change would be expected to lead to increased agricultural exports as FAS places more emphasis on trade and would support the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

"Our plan to establish an undersecretary for trade fits right in line with my goal to be American agriculture's unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world. By working side by side with our U.S. Trade Representative and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, the USDA undersecretary for trade will ensure that American producers are well equipped to sell their products and feed the world," Perdue said.

The report to Congress doesn't state whether the creation of an undersecretary of trade and foreign agricultural affairs would directly affect programs such as the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program. Farm groups have called on Congress to double funding for the programs as a way to offset some of the potential market access lost when President Donald Trump opted out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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.

More directly affecting farm operations, the USDA reorganization plan also includes moving the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources and Conservation and Risk Management Agency under one umbrella overseen by an undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

"The goal of that position is to provide a simplified one-stop shop for the USDA's primary customers: American farmers, ranchers and foresters," Perdue wrote in his op-ed.

In addition, the Rural Development mission area -- which includes functions as diverse as rural electricity, telephone and broadband services and energy development -- would lose its undersecretary. The Rural Development agencies would report directly to Perdue. "That will ensure that rural America always has a seat at the table," Perdue wrote in his op-ed.

The National Grain and Feed Association, and its export arm, the North American Export Grain Association, commended Perdue for his "decisive and prompt" action to reorganize the department.

"It is highly significant that one of Secretary Perdue's first actions reflects his recognition of, and strong support for, the essential role that agricultural trade plays in the economic well-being of U.S. farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses, rural communities and the nation as a whole," said NGFA President Randy Gordon and NAEGA President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Martin.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture, applauded the reorganization plan and the creation of the trade undersecretary. "I am encouraged that one of Secretary Perdue's first acts is to establish this new Under Secretary. This position will raise the profile of the American economy's agricultural sector and focus on promoting American goods overseas," Aderholt said.

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 full report to Congress can be found at https://www.usda.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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