When President Trump introduced his 2018 budget a few weeks ago, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had barely finished unpacking boxes in his new office. That budget, met with displeasure in much of rural America due to its approach to agriculture, has meant Purdue’s first round of testimony before congressional committees hasn’t been entirely bump-free.
That was evident on June 13, when Perdue sat before the Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies. Largely, Perdue dutifully backed Trump’s budget preferences although he did break with the White House in several areas.
Perdue: The proposed 2018 budget “for USDA programs within this Subcommittee is about $135 billion, of which approximately $122 billion is mandatory funding. The majority of these funds support crop insurance, nutrition assistance programs, farm commodity and trade programs and a number of conservation programs.”
The hearing remained friendly but North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, committee chair, said Trump should mine sectors other than agriculture for budget savings. Agriculture, he said, has taken enough of a hit. “Over the next 10 years, the Farm Bill program will save $104 billion. Clearly agriculture is doing its part to reduce the federal deficit.”
“Based on this budget, rural families and farming aren’t a priority for this president,” said ranking member, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. “The good news is rural families and farmers are yours, Secretary Perdue. I hope you can do everything in your power to communicate what a budget would look like that’d empower and support rural America.”
Merkley said the Trump budget would mean a 23 percent cut, or $5 billion, for agriculture and rural development spending. Further, he claimed, under the plan more than 20 research programs would face the axe and the Farm Service Administration would lose about 1,000 employees.
With the 2018 farm bill debate close at hand, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who’d spent time on a stage with Perdue at a Delta Council meeting just a few days earlier, took a gentler tact. “It’s hard to please everybody. But we’re going to try and make as many happy throughout the process so we don’t have anyone left out that ought to be included. We’ll work towards that end.”
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a farmer, returned to jabbing at the proposed Trump budget. “As a bipartisan, maybe ‘disgust’ is too big a word but ‘disappointment’ (isn’t) with this budget. I’m very concerned, being someone from rural America. You understand, also being from rural America, the impacts of this budget.
“This (budget) came on prior to your being secretary. The real question is: how the hell do we fix it? It doesn’t work.
“Right now, because of prices being in the toilet, farm income is down to about half what it was at record year 2013 -- $62 billion dropped. … Safety net programs are there for this exact reason. Quite frankly, when prices drop there needs to be a safety net to help manage risk…
“Farmers and ranchers (in Montana) aren’t asking for much. What they’re asking is that we not take a step backwards.”
Perdue remained genial throughout the hearing but blamed government for “too often” being “the most existential threat to American farmers and producers. We aim to put a stop to that.”
How might that be accomplished?
In written testimony Perdue said “the President recently announced the creation of the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. With USDA as chair, we will examine, consider and take actions to address current barriers to economic prosperity and the welfare of communities in rural America, including how innovation and modern technology, and infrastructure play a critical role in fully bringing communities into the 21st century. This multi-department group will find ways to improve regulatory flexibility and provide relief for farms and small businesses. We will examine how the federal government does business and how that impacts rural communities, and food and fiber production. And, we will, at every turn, ensure that decisions and actions are founded in principles of sound science and validated facts.”
Perdue allowed there are areas of the budget that could “benefit from some guidance.” Among them, he said, are research and development and crop insurance.