WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue struggled to defend President Donald Trump's budget requests for USDA in the face of withering criticism when he testified before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.
Perdue's written testimony focused on the provisions for fiscal year 2018 and not on the White House proposal to make cuts to nearly every Agriculture Department and to cut more than 5,000 employees department-wide.
Addressing lawmakers, Perdue said, "We do have a dilemma in this country of how we right-size the budget," but he did not disagree with many statements by subcommittee members in favor of USDA programs.
House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., welcomed Perdue warmly, but noted that the budget would give the subcommittee "plenty" to discuss. Aderholt also noted that the White House had used a "scalpel" on some programs but that some other programs with good records, such as the water and wastewater program for low-income communities, got "axed."
Asked by Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., about the proposed 36% cut in crop insurance, Perdue replied, "You won't get any disagreement with me on the value of crop insurance." The move away from direct payments in the 2014 farm bill was "good," Perdue said, while the budget "retools" crop insurance with means testing.
Crop insurance and other farm programs will be determined by the next farm bill, Perdue said, adding his job as Agriculture secretary is to consult with members as they develop that bill.
Noting that Perdue has said he supports agricultural research, conservation and other programs, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., ranking member on the subcommittee, told Perdue, his fellow Georgian, "We are severely disappointed, as I am sure you were, to see that all these programs face severe cuts in the budget."
Bishop acknowledged that the administration wants to spend more money on defense, homeland security and veterans, but he added, "It seems the administration is doing that at the expense of the citizens we are supposed to protect."
Bishop also told Perdue he was upset by the proposal to eliminate the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development Program because they help, among other things, Georgia pecans. Perdue said he wants to work with the commodity cooperator groups but that statistics used to show the importance of MAP and FMD in increasing exports may be "hyperbole."
Perdue added that he wants to be held accountable on trade issues.
"You are not going to see exports decrease," Perdue said.
Bishop also urged Perdue to be an advocate with lawmakers on changing the laws on how Cubans can finance the importation of U.S. food products so that U.S. farmers can export more.
Perdue also maintained that his proposal to turn the undersecretary for rural development into an assistant reporting directly to him would strengthen the program.
If someone were offered a job as an "assistant to the CEO" from whom he could get a "go or no-go decision" or "reporting to a senior vice president" who might take months to make a decision, the person would prefer the job as an assistant, Perdue said. That was apparently a reference to his view that undersecretaries report to the Agriculture deputy secretary.
Noting that when he visited Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., last weekend in Nebraska and no one could get a cellphone signal, Perdue said he regards broadband as "the sewer, the roads, the power of a previous generation."
While some people say that government should be operated like a business, "government is not like a business," Perdue said, explaining that one thing government can do is offer incentives to get broadband service to rural America.
Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said that USDA's hiring freeze has reduced customer service in county offices.
Perdue said he had not "drilled down" on that hiring issue, but that he has proposed moving the Natural Resources Conservation Service into the same mission area with the Farm Service Agency in order to increase customer service so that if one employee is out due to illness or a "child issue," someone from the other agency can step in and provide service.
"Co-locating is more than physical -- it is heart, soul and spirit," Perdue said.
Perdue also told Palazzo that the USDA General Counsel's Office is giving him the same advice it gave former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the issue of declaring cottonseed an oilseed: USDA does not have the authority to do that. Perdue said that he knew Vilsack "wrestled with that" and added, "I am getting the same legal advice from the general counsel now."
Perdue said he is "between a hard place and rock" when it comes to helping the cotton growers.
House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., also told Perdue that he had come to the subcommittee with "a budget proposal that will increase hunger worldwide" and create burdens for rural America.
Aderholt said he was disturbed by the administration's proposal to eliminate the Food for Peace program, which sends American food to needy countries in American ships. Instead, Aderholt noted, the administration proposes to shift remaining food aid authority to the U.S. Agency for International Development international disaster account, which would use cash to purchase food.
"Is the alternative to buy food from our competitors?" Aderholt asked, calling the proposal a repeat of an Obama administration proposal "that went nowhere." The proposal runs "entirely counter" to the administration's "Buy American, Hire American" policies, he said, and asked if the administration would prefer to support American farmers, ranchers and the maritime community.
"I think your comments are essentially irrefutable," Perdue replied. "I think we would love to have American foods fulfill our humanitarian mission."
The most scathing criticism came from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a former chairwoman of the subcommittee, over the administration proposal for states to pay 25% of the benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
"I will be direct about my view of this budget document, and my hope is that this budget document is dead on arrival. Because I believe it cruel, I believe it heartless, and I believe it inhumane," DeLauro said.
Perdue asked DeLauro to "notice, the FY18 budget fully funds the SNAP as it has been. The legislative proposal going forward is obviously something you and all of your members of Congress will deal with and have your stamp upon that. I want to make the distinction."
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., defended the administration proposal to require the states to pay 25% of the benefits and said he was glad the administration is "restoring sanity to the program."
But after the hearing, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, told DTN that requiring the states to pay 25% of benefits "would be really tough on a state like mine, where there is no money to spare."
After the hearing, when a reporter attempted to ask Perdue about cuts to farm programs, he smiled and said, "I support the president's budget."
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