White House proposes to slice USDA

The federal government’s annual game of fact or fiction – once known as the budget process – kicked off its nine-month season Feb. 6 with President George W. Bush asking Congress to approve $2.77 trillion in spending for fiscal year 2007.
The proposed budget follows the same recipe as the previous five cooked up by this White House: More fat tax cuts for the super-rich wrapped in a triple tortilla of record program cuts, record federal spending and record federal deficits.
In all, some 140 federal programs would see their budgets trimmed, slashed or wiped out under Bush’s tax-less, spend-more budget plan.
The USDA is a key budget target for the second time in less than a week.
Making cuts. On Feb. 1, the House (on a 216-214 vote) clipped the USDA for $3 billion of an estimated $39 billion in total cuts for the five-year GOP budget reconciliation plan. That means farmers and ranchers will chip in nearly 9 percent of the overall reconciliation cuts from 2006 to 2011, despite farm and ranch program spending composing less than 1 percent of federal spending over the period.
Now the White House wants a second, bigger helping.
The 2007 proposed USDA cuts add up to 8 percent of Bush’s total cuts, although farm program spending next year will be less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. The biggest cut, weighing in at $1.1 billion, uniformly slices farm program payments, including the Milk Income Loss Contract program, 5 percent across the board.
Another, however, is long overdue: A hard, $250,000 cap on farm payments any individual can receive. Today’s soft cap of $360,000 is a complete sham.
Short shelf life. The needed cap, however, faces a short shelf life. Last year the Senate knocked an identical idea in the head by a 53 to 46 count. GOP Southern reps and senators (who, incidentally, chair both ag committees) shot it down to protect their market-fried rice and cotton producers.
Likewise, expect the same interests – and American Farm Bureau – to burn the 5 percent cut plan. No farm policy maker will voluntarily concede 5 percent of any farm support program without the World Trade Organization prying it from his or her cold, dead fingers.
With those two big hopes hopelessly headed nowhere, Bush budgeters return to two golden oldies they’ve hummed since 2001 – USDA user fees and more paring of conservation, rural development and renewable energy programs.
User fees. USDA user fees are a Bush favorite, as old (and as dead) as Julius Caesar. Agbiz titans and meat packers will kill ‘em all with one, two-minute phone call to Capitol Hill.
But cuts to conservation, rural development and renewable energy – programs that actually benefit rural Americans and the nation – have been fertile targets for the White House and Congressional Republicans in the past. So, in 2007, the Bushies go back to what has worked.
For example, the Conservation Security Program faces another $30 million cut. 2007 funding, at $342 million, now stands at less than half of what Congress approved in the 2002 farm bill. The Value-Added Producer Grant Program to spur farm-related businesses takes a 49 percent pop, down to $20.3 million from $40 million.
Decreasing budgets. Also, sustainable ag research and education is pared 21 percent, the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program 48 percent; and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program 35 percent.
Even crazier than the short-sided cuts themselves is the fact that the White House is again pursuing them despite strong farm and ranch support for each.
Last year’s nationwide USDA dog-and-pony show on 2007 farm bill priorities again proved conservation was the No. 1 issue for producers in the upcoming farm bill debate; 739 of 1,846 witnesses at the 41 meetings named it their top priority.
Rural development. The second item most requested (by 514 witnesses) was, naturally, rural development. Energy was the mentioned by 110 witnesses.
And yet the White House, with Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns’ blessing, is again aiming to cut conservation, rural development and energy programs in its 2007 budget plan. Why?
The short answer is evident: Your agency, USDA, doesn’t represent you.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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