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Senators Question USDA Emphasis on Rural Development Amid Reorganization

by Countable | 6.2.17

Democratic lawmakers reached out to the president this week to express concerns about reorganization at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Published plans eliminate key positions amidst deep departmental cuts overall. The signers fear this indicates the USDA is stepping away from rural development, but are they? Digging deeper into the background the reality is unclear.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy, joined 28 Democratic Senators in a letter to President Donald Trump about USDA reorganization plans. Specifically, they raised concerns about the agency’s plan to eliminate the Under Secretary for Rural Development. According to the USDA, the Under Secretary job description has been:

"providing leadership for three USDA mission areas charged with improving the economic well-being of rural America: the Rural Housing Service, the Rural Utilities Service and the Rural Business-Cooperative Service. Together, these mission areas provide critical infrastructure investments in the form of loans and grants for rural housing, high-speed broadband access, telephone, electric and water utilities, renewable energy generation and conservation, local and regional food systems, community facilities, and small business development in rural America.”

The senators argued that eliminating the position along with other proposed cuts to rural development programs would:

"undermine the ability of local communities to support rural home ownership; provide clean drinking and waste water systems; and promote access to critical services such as rural hospitals, police, and firefighters. If enacted, these cuts would have a damaging impact on rural communities throughout the country."

They acknowledged the plan to create a new Under Secretary for Trade and applauded it, but maintained that trade cannot be pursued to the detriment of rural development:

"We do not believe that enhancing agricultural exports has to come with a demotion for the rural development activities."

At the same time, the USDA maintains that they are not de-emphasizing rural development, but "elevating" it. On the USDA website page outlining the planned reorganization Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is quoted as saying:

"The economic health of small towns across America is crucial to the future of the agriculture economy. It is my commitment to always argue for the needs of rural America, which is why we are elevating Rural Development within USDA...No doubt, the opportunity we have here at the USDA in rural development is unmatched."

This "elevation" means that the Secretary will oversee rural development directly, rather than working through an Under Secretary, as detailed in a recent USDA report to Congress.

Whether or not the Secretary directly overseeing rural development programs will be successful or not is unknown. But worthy of note, as the Senators point out in their letter, is that the reorganization is proceeding without time for the public to comment or for any of those comments to be considered:

"we are disappointed that USDA plans to implement the reorganization even before public comments are due, suggesting that USDA has no real plan to consider these comments and make any changes based on the comments. USDA must carefully consider all comments received before the proposed reorganization is actually implemented.”

There is no clear due date for comments, and the USDA is not collecting them directly. Instead, the agency directs the public to a general comment page for input on reorganizing the Executive Branch hosted by the White House.

Is the reorganization of the USDA, making the Secretary of Agriculture directly responsible for rural development, a good idea? Use the Take Action button to tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: USDA / Creative Commons)

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