In what many are calling a power grab, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman used authority given the USDA in the 2002 Farm Bill to propose new guidelines that alter the composition and shorten the terms of locally-elected county Farm Service Agency (FSA) committees.
The committees administrate billions of dollars in USDA farm program money.
“The proposed reforms,” Veneman noted in announcing them, “will help encourage participation by minority and under-represented producers on county committees.”
The new century. Given USDA’s sad civil rights record – confirmed in the landmark Pigford v. Glickman case where the agency publicly accepted responsibility for its systematic racial discrimination – the proposals could be seen as a sign that USDA is finally entering the 21st century.
A closer look at the two major changes – the secretary’s power to appoint “socially disadvantaged” members to local committees and cutting committee service from three, three-year terms to two, three-year terms – show them more as political window-dressing than penance for past USDA sins.
Indeed, many local FSA officials and employees believe Veneman’s changes will cut local accountability, add a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy and inject politics where none now exists.
Curious timing. The timing of the reforms couldn’t be more curious.
For example, on July 20, the Environmental Working Group, a loud critic of USDA, issued a lengthy report, Obstruction of Justice, that outlined how the U.S. Department of Justice, under USDA contract, “spent 56,000 staff hours and $12 million” to deny 81,000 of the 94,000 discrimination claims filed by African American farmers under the Pigford settlement.
“Moreover, within days of Veneman’s Aug. 18 announced changes, a second lawsuit, estimated at $20.5 billion and filed by 11 plaintiffs and the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association, alleged USDA loan discrimination against African American farmers from 1997 to 2004.
“The new lawsuit, on the heels of Veneman’s proposed new rules, gave a USDA spokesman a new chance to brag that the agency has “a very strong record of accomplishment