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Published February 27, 2012, 10:49 AM

Vilsack grilled on budget request

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack may have thought he was complying with the mood in Congress recently when he presented a budget with a minimum of increases, but at a four-hour hearing before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee he got a full dose of members’ views on cuts to the programs they think are important.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack may have thought he was complying with the mood in Congress recently when he presented a budget with a minimum of increases, but at a four-hour hearing before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee he got a full dose of members’ views on cuts to the programs they think are important.

Vilsack told the subcommittee on Feb. 17 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was submitting a budget request for $18 billion for discretionary spending in fiscal year 2013, a net increase of only a little more than $1 billion compared with fiscal year 2012, and that the agency had made its contribution to the budget deficit by taking a slight decrease in spending in recent years.

While Republicans — including House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee chairman Jack Kingston of Georgia and Rep. Alan Nunnelee of Mississipi — expressed concern about the overall level of spending, including mandatory programs in the midst of a budget deficit, it was members of Vilsack’s own Democratic party who were the most upset about individual cuts.

“The administration had plenty of opportunities to moderate or scale back these programs by focusing on only those of highest need, yet the few legislative proposals contained in the budget not only allow for the same auto-pilot mandatory spending, but increase spending,” Kingston said.

But no Republican proposed a cut in the crop insurance program, which is responsible for most of the increase, and in fact some expressed skepticism about the crop insurance cut the administration has proposed.

Kingston also noted that Vilsack had asked for a $5 million increase for his office at a time when Congress is cutting back on its staff, but Vilsack said the money was for an increase in the USDA office of the general counsel.

Nunnelee noted that there were proposals to cut farm subsidies, but asked whether there were no proposed cuts to food stamps, the agency’s largest program.

Vilsack replied that the cuts would come from improving the accuracy rate, reducing fraud and from the reduction in the number of beneficiaries as unemployment goes down.

President Barack Obama, Vilsack said, “has been clear that we have to have a delicate balance” between budget balancing and not damaging the economy. Middle class and low-income people “have already paid a fairly high price” during the recession through loss of homes, he said.

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Sam Farr, D-Calif., told Vilsack “Your department is the biggest feeder of people with no income and low income,” and added that he needs to defend the programs, including the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC, and should push states such as his home state of California to enroll more people who are eligible for food stamps.

House Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks, D-Wash., added that he was glad the administration had been able “to prevent draconian cuts” and that austerity could be practiced in 2014 when the economy has improved.

Payment errors

Kingston also led a discussion of payment errors at USDA, which started out with food stamps but ultimately led to all USDA programs. Rep. Rosa De Lauro, D-Conn., noted that the food stamp error rate is only 3.8 percent, lower than the 4.7 percent error rate for crop insurance payments.

But Kingston said the overall error rate in USDA payments of 5.8 percent amounted to $5.4 billion in erroneous payments — an amount of money that could save some programs that would be cut.

“I am trying to find common ground. I want to go after that common ground,” Kingston told his fellow subcommittee members.

DeLauro said she was particularly upset that the administration had zeroed out a microbiological data program at the Agricultural Marketing Service that is used to test produce. DeLauro said the $4.3 million program saves lives and that the cut is shortsighted.

Vilsack replied that because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in charge of food safety for fruits and vegetables, it would be more appropriate there. But DeLauro said she is afraid the microbiological program “will wither on the vine” because “no one will pick it up.”

Perhaps recalling that then-Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, once referred to a portion of the farm bill as “pencil dust,” De Lauro called the savings from the microbiological program “budget dust.” She also told Vilsack she would go through the USDA budget to find the savings that would allow the program to continue.

DeLauro also asked whether the Food Safety and Inspection Service would have the resources to handle an expected increase in imported meat and poultry.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., expressed concern about the financial difficulties of the ethanol plant in his district, and said he hopes the energy loan and grant programs continue.

Kingston also said he found some unusually large USDA research grants, and questioned whether there was duplication of the research projects.

Agriculture deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan said that when she was a college professor she noticed that academic researchers had to spend an inordinate amount of time applying for grants. To deal with that issue, Merrigan said, USDA is now making fewer but larger grants, and noted that most of them go to several institutions, a practice that enourages them to work together.

Merrigan and Vilsack also said that conditions vary from state to state, which is why research is conducted on the same subject in different parts of the country.

Merrigan also said that the grants are peer-reviewed, but Kingston said that as the son and brother of college professors, he is not impressed with peer review because academic colleagues like to keep research money flowing.

Farr noted that agriculture members’ designation of research grants to certain universities was the most “abused” earmark offense, and said that the competitive grant process is “much better.”

Vilsack answered the queries, but under the barrage finally told DeLauro, “You are now at the point of people like me having to make very tough decisions.”

“You’ve got a tough job,” Nunnelee told Vilsack. “We want you to save money. We just don’t want you to save money at home.”

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