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Published January 23, 2012, 12:56 PM

Obama proposes reorganizing agencies

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s proposal to reorganize six agencies that promote business and trade and possibly reorganize food safety agencies has not been well received in agriculture or consumer advocacy circles.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s proposal to reorganize six agencies that promote business and trade and possibly reorganize food safety agencies has not been well received in agriculture or consumer advocacy circles.

Obama said Jan. 13 he wants to merge the U.S. Department of Commerce’s core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Interior Department.

Obama said the reorganization is warranted because “overlapping responsibilities among agencies have made it harder, rather than easier, for our small businesses to interact with their government.” If Obama gets consolidation authority, it would function like fast-track trade negotiating authority, he said. Congress could only vote up or down on the proposal.

Jeff Zients, the Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, who since has been named acting director, said that food safety would be one of the next candidates to be considered for consolidation if Congress grants him the power to consolidate agencies.

Questioning the moves

Congressional and farm leaders immediately questioned the wisdom of moving the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative out of the Office of the President while consumer advocates questioned whether a possible reorganization of food safety agencies actually would improve food safety.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said in a joint statement on Jan. 13 that they are concerned about merging USTR with other agencies.

“While we welcome the ability to reduce duplication and streamline government services, we are concerned about the impact that the president’s proposal could have on the ability of the United States to aggressively open new markets to American-made goods and services and create U.S. jobs,” Baucus and Camp said in the news release.

“The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is nimble, lean and effective — and time and again it delivers on its mission and creates jobs here at home. Taking USTR, one of the most efficient agencies that is a model of how government can and should work, and making it just another corner of a new bureaucratic behemoth would hurt American exports and hinder American job creation,” Baucus and Camp concluded.

Commodity groups react

The American Soybean Association issued a statement against merging the trade office.

“We believe that USTR should remain an independent agency within the executive office of the president, focusing on trade negotiations, trade agreements and trade enforcement,” the statement said.

The ASA said it was concerned that “folding USTR into a massive Department of Commerce or industry structure would significantly weaken the coordination role played by USTR on trade interests across sectors, and the work on agricultural trade opportunities and barriers would be diminished.”

The U.S. Dairy Export Council and the National Milk Producers Federation said that they were also concerned that moving USTR “could detrimentally affect U.S. ability to effectively negotiate and enforce trade agreements.”

USDEC President Tom Suber said, “USTR has long been a model of a highly efficient operation, staffed by extremely hard-working individuals and on a scale that is small enough to ensure a high level of accessibility to a wide variety of voices, ranging from the largest U.S. companies to comparatively smaller agricultural organizations, such as USDEC, to small businesses themselves. It represents our government at its best and performs a vital role for our members who are focused on growing U.S. dairy exports. Because of this, we would not support its inclusion in a larger department out of concern for the negative impact this would almost certainly have on USTR’s nimbleness and capacity to maintain its high degree of openness.”

Those statements reflect the fact that USTR was established as a separate office within the executive office of the president because Commerce Department officials continually urged U.S. trade negotiators to take a pro-business position, while State Department officials said nonbusiness foreign policy matters should determine whether the United States wants to pursue an agreement or a liberalization or tightening up of trade rules.

In addition, the trade representative has ambassadorial status and heads an agency — factors that are impressive to foreign officials. Zients did say the trade representative would retain ambassadorial status.

The proposal under consideration originally also included moving the Foreign Agricultural Service into the newly merged agency, but USDA officials and farm groups said FAS needs to interact with other divisions of USDA and so that merger would not make sense, and it was not included.

FAS, for example, gathers data for the monthly release of world supply and demand for agricultural products and also interacts closely with the Animal and Plant Health Safety and Inspection Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service, both of which have domestic and international operations.

Farm leaders sometimes have complained about the need to deal with USDA, Commerce and USTR on trade matters, and the reorganization, if it is finalized, could potentially resolve some of the inefficiencies.

Zients said moving the National Oceanic and Fisheries Administration from Commerce to the Interior Department would make sense because it would bring the regulation of all fish under one agency. Obama often has noted that it makes no sense for different types of salmon to be regulated in different agencies.

Environment, food safety concerns

But Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, the consumer watchdog, said, “We are deeply concerned about President Obama’s proposal to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Department of the Interior, the same Department that brought us BP’s Deepwater Horizon. While the mission of NOAA is not consistent with the mission of the Department of Commerce, where it currently resides, moving it to the Department of Interior will fail to eliminate any conflicts arising from dueling mandates. This plan to slash the government fails to eliminate these conflicts and will do nothing to promote a better functioning executive branch.

Instead of moving NOAA from one department to another, it should be made an independent agency, as was suggested by the 2003 Pew Oceans Commission and its chairman, Leon Panetta. And its mandate should be protecting the oceans, not protecting business interests.

Meanwhile, a consumer advocate told DTN that administration officials want to merge the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is located at USDA, with the food regulatory functions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is part of the Health and Human Services Department.

The merger probably would involve moving FSIS to FDA on the grounds that FDA would be independent from USDA, which has the role of promoting food as well as assuring its safety.

The advocate noted that food safety experts have long called for the food safety function to be independent of USDA, but that merging the two agencies would raise questions about the division of the budget for inspections

FSIS, whose inspectors must be present in every meat plant in the country, has a bigger budget than the FDA, which has responsibility for other foods. Twelve agencies are involved in food safety.

Food and Water Watch said, “We strongly urge against consolidating food safety functions of different government departments until much more progress is made to improve basic food safety protections.”

The dairy groups also questioned the consolidation of the food safety agencies. National Milk and USDEC said the administration’s statement “did not reference what affect such a food safety consolidation might have on the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, which currently plays a key official role as a proxy for FDA on many export-related issues, given the lack of an FDA mandate to address export matters. The fact that FDA is not charged with responsibility for supporting U.S. food exports, has in the past created unnecessary hurdles to resolving U.S. dairy export challenges, given FDA’s oversight of dairy products. NMPF and USDEC support efforts to rationalize FDA’s role with respect to exported products to most effectively make use of government oversight responsibilities.

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