Congressman Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (GA-02), Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, delivered the following opening statement during the subcommittee’s hearing on the budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Video and background on the subcommittee hearing can be found here. Below is Congressman Bishop’s full statement as prepared:
Thank you Mr. Chairman and welcome Mr. Secretary, Mr. Young, and Dr. Johansson.
Mr. Chairman, I am especially pleased to be here today as we have our subcommittee’s first hearing following the Budget Request released by the Administration yesterday.
It also gives me great pleasure to welcome to the committee my friend of longstanding from Georgia, Secretary Sonny Perdue. Having worked with the Secretary in his various capacities as a State Senator, a constituent of Houston county, and Governor of Georgia, I know firsthand of his professionalism and passion for rural America. I believe that the cooperative relationship we developed over the years will prove to be a great asset as we work together with you, Mr. Chairman, to ensure our farmers, ranchers, foresters, agribusinesses, and consumers have the resources they need to prosper in today’s competitive and global environment. I have a lot of respect for the Secretary, who grew up on a farm, became a trained veterinarian, and a successful Agri-businessman who I know is uniquely familiar with the importance of supporting farmers, ranchers, producers, and consumers. And he has a clear vision for the Department in doing just that! I am excited to work with him to advocate for this Nation’s farmers and rural communities.
As many of you have heard me say before, Georgia is a major agriculture state, with 42,000 farms, contributing $71 billion annually to the state and national economies. Georgia is number one in the nation for the production of poultry, peanuts, pecans, blueberries, and privately owned timberlands. My district, specifically, leads the state in peanuts, cotton, pecans, fruits and vegetables, as well as family-owned timberlands.
More importantly, of the 29 counties that I represent, 26 of those counties are rural, with average populations between 10,000 to 15,000 people. These counties are some of the most economically disadvantaged counties in the state and the nation: meaning they face severe challenges in healthcare, nutrition, rural housing and utilities, broadband, and economic development and persistent poverty. Agencies under this subcommittee’s jurisdiction, and especially the US Department of Agriculture, are vital to their economic wellbeing, and the economic wellbeing of rural communities similarly situated all across our nation. Which is why it is vitally important that programs affecting rural American be well-funded and why we are here today.
Mr. Secretary, during your confirmation hearing you told members of the Senate Agriculture Committee that you support programs to fund agricultural research, develop infrastructure in rural communities, and help landowners preserve soil and water quality. Well….I do too and that’s why I was severely disappointed – as I am sure you were – to see that all of these programs face severe cuts under the President’s recently submitted budget. In fact, overall, this budget cuts the USDA by $3.8 billion (or 19%) compared to Fiscal Year 2017 levels, or a cut of $4.8 billion (26%) if you take into account the proposed offsets.
Mr. Chairman and Mr. Secretary, I am deeply concerned about the impact of these proposed cuts on the Department, and on the nation as a whole. It’s been reported that these, and other, cuts are to offset the proposed increase in Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. While I recognize and deeply appreciate the importance of strengthening our military, supporting our Veterans, and keeping our country safe, it appears that the Administration is doing that at the direct expense of the citizens we are supposed to protect. We are duty bound to uphold the laws of this country and that includes promoting the general welfare of its people. To me, that means we are to feed and clothe our citizens by using sound scientific best practices to ensure a safe and abundant food supply. The USDA is THE department to do just that, but how can that happen with a 13% cut in research? How can we do that with a proposed budget that zeroes out the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Account and the Watershed Rehabilitation Program, which were funded at $162 million in Fiscal Year 2017? And how can we do that with a whopping 30% cut to Rural Development --a cut not comparable to any budget in the last 17 years?
This proposed budget zeroes out 502 single family direct housing loans; many smaller housing programs; the water and waste disposal program; and all rural business and cooperative programs. It does propose a new account called “Rural Economic Infrastructure Grants,” funded at $162 million, which appears to consist of distance learning and telemedicine, broadband, community facility, and home repair grant programs. We look forward to receiving more information about this as the process of formulating our bill continues.
Additionally, the reductions proposed to Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services is quite troubling. Of the nearly $2 billion reduction, $1.8 billion is from zeroing out the Food for Peace and McGovern-Dole programs. Most of the balance comes from the Farm Services Agency.
Mr. Secretary and Mr. Chairman, I feel compelled to mention that there are eight drastic legislative proposals to cut nearly $200 billion in mandatory funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps, over the next ten years. I, and virtually all of my colleagues who value the admonitions from Jesus in the 25th chapter of Matthew regarding the “least of these,” are strongly opposed to this wrong-headed attempt to save money by cutting a program that helps children, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and adults struggling with low wages and/or temporary joblessness to avoid hunger. These proposals do not match our Nation’s values and fail the test of basic human decency. We as a Nation can and should do better for the most vulnerable among us.
Mr. Chairman, I have concerns with some aspects of the current proposal to reorganize the department. As I said in my statement on the matter, we are carefully reviewing the proposed reorganization, which would make a number of changes; including moving the Rural Development agencies to report directly to the Secretary via an Assistant; establishing a new Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, which would oversee the Foreign Agricultural Service; and creating a new Farm Production and Conservation mission area. We need to see how this revised chain of command would impact our country’s rural communities. We will be analyzing these proposed reforms to ensure they would make Rural Development, and the other forward facing customer service interaction arms of USDA, more streamlined, less onerous, and more responsive.
Mr. Secretary, I believe that you will honestly try to bring positive changes to the USDA and, like you, we are always looking for ways to do things more efficiently. My concern is that you are not being allowed to ask for sufficient resources and staffing. Like you, Mr. Secretary, I want to ensure that the resources this Committee provides are used correctly and efficiently, and most assuredly that you and the USDA have the necessary resources to successfully carry out its mission. There are limits to doing more with less, and it appears that in OMB’s haste to make good on one promise they have now told the American public that they expect less with less. You cannot squeeze blood from a turnip and the budget submitted yesterday attempts to do just that.
Mr. Secretary, you have said that you will make rural America a priority and I know without a doubt that you want to do that. However, we both know that this budget does the exact opposite of fulfilling that promise. With that said, Mr. Secretary, I apologize for the length of my opening statement, but I pledge to do my best to work with you, Chairman Aderholt, our subcommittee, and our colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the House and the Senate to make this USDA the most effective, the most efficient, and the most customer service oriented USDA in our country’s history.
Thank you for your commitment.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to welcome Secretary Perdue and share my concerns. I yield back.