Sec. Vilsack Testifies to House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration
May 13, 2009
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack today testified before the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Committee on Appropriations. His testimony as prepared for delivery is below:
Madam Chairwoman and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, it is a pleasure to come back before you today to discuss the details of the President's 2010 budget request for the Department of Agriculture.
In my testimony before this Subcommittee in March, I outlined the President's goals for the Department and the challenges and opportunities we face in revitalizing rural America and the economy at this crucial time. Over the first 100 days of this Administration, USDA has set out on a new course to promote a sustainable, safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply, to ensure that America leads the global fight against climate change, and to revitalize rural communities by expanding economic opportunities.
We have moved quickly to respond to these difficult economic times by creating jobs, increasing food aid to those in need, and revitalizing rural communities.
We have also made civil rights a top priority with definitive action to improve the Department's record and move USDA to be a model employer and premier service provider.
Before I delve into the specifics of the 2010 budget, I would like to provide an update on our efforts to implement the Recovery Act.
USDA has taken decisive action to implement provisions of the Recovery Act.
We immediately took measures to make available almost $20 billion, or approximately 70 percent of total funding received under the Act, for increasing the monthly benefits of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). We also allocated $125 million for emergency food assistance.
To assist farmers struggling with tight credit markets, we obligated over 99 percent of the $173 million in Recovery Act funding for direct farm operating loans, which has provided assistance to 2,636 farmers, of which approximately half were to beginning farmers and 23 percent were to socially disadvantaged farmers.
In the area of the environment and natural resource conservation, we announced a national signup for up to $145 million in floodplain easements, which will restore and protect an estimated 60,000 acres of flood-prone lands. In addition, $45 million has been provided for the rehabilitation of watersheds and $85 million for 53 flood prevention projects in 21 States and territories.
Rural communities are also benefiting from our actions. We have made available more than $600 million in funding to provide safe drinking water and improved wastewater treatment systems for rural towns in 34 States.
We have begun implementation of the Act's broadband provisions in concert with the U.S. Department of Commerce and are determining the best targeted utilization of the $2.5 billion for expanding rural broadband into communities that otherwise might not have access.
USDA has also obligated a loan level of $3.4 billion in guaranteed and direct single family housing loans for over 28,800 loans.
I want to assure this Subcommittee that the Subcabinet, agencies and the Department will be held accountable for not just swift implementation, but also for ensuring the funds are used efficiently and effectively.
The President's 2010 budget, released on May 7, 2009, proposes $21.3 billion for discretionary programs under the jurisdiction of this Subcommittee, an increase of nearly $2 billion over the 2009 levels provided in the Omnibus Appropriations Act. This increase is primarily associated with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), international food assistance, rural development and other priority programs.
At this time I would like to briefly point out how this budget supports our highest priority programs:
The budget fully supports nutrition assistance programs, including full funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to serve all an estimated monthly average of 9.8 million participants.
In addition, the Administration is proposing an increase of $10 billion over 10 years for reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs. These increases will be used to improve access to nutritious meals, to encourage children to make healthy food choices, and to enhance services for participants by improving program performance and integrity.
In support of the President's commitment to modernizing the food system, the budget requests over $1 billion for the Food Safety and Inspection Service. This is the full amount necessary to meet the demand for meat, poultry, and egg products inspection as well as providing for increased investment in food safety assessments and technology needed to enhance our ability to identify, respond to, and reduce food safety risks.
Expanding our access to world markets and developing long-term trade relationships continue to be vital components of our strategy to improve the vitality of the farm sector and quality of life in rural areas.
Due to the global credit crisis, we have seen a significant increase in demand for export credit guarantees provided through the GSM-102 program. To help meet this demand, the budget provides a program level of $5.5 billion, the maximum authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill, for CCC export credit guarantees for 2010.
To encourage further export expansion for our products, we need to work hard both in Washington and in our offices overseas to ensure continued access to overseas markets. I appreciate the Subcommittee's support in providing additional resources in 2009 for this activity. Our 2010 budget builds on this foundation with $16.4 million in additional funds to maintain the Foreign Agricultural Service's overseas presence and upgrade their information technology infrastructure.
International Food Assistance:
The 2010 budget also supports the Administration's commitment to renewing U.S. leadership in promoting global development and fostering world food security by doubling the level of discretionary funding for the McGovern-Dole International Food for
Education and Child Nutrition Program. The budget also supports a program level of $1.7 billion for P.L. 480 Title II donations, which will reduce our reliance on the need for future emergency supplemental funding.
Environmental Services Markets:
The budget reflects the new course the Administration has set to ensure that America leads the global fight against climate change, and to revitalize rural communities by expanding economic opportunities. To this end, the budget includes an increase of $15.8 million to develop markets that reward producers for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
The budget promotes rural America's leadership in developing renewable energy by supporting almost $780 million in investments, a net increase of about $275 million over 2009. Notably, our discretionary request supports $280 million in guaranteed loans and grants for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).
For rural development, the 2010 budget includes funding to support over $21 billion for loans, loan guarantees, and grants for the on-going discretionary programs, an increase of $825 million over 2009. This includes $1.3 billion in loans and grants to increase broadband capacity and improve telecommunication service.
To spur the development of small business and value-added agriculture in rural America, increased funding is sought to support $63 million in loans under the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program and $8 million for value-added producer grants.
The budget provides the funding necessary to finance home ownership opportunities for nearly 59,000 rural residents and fully supports the Administration's commitment to protect low-income tenants participating in the Rental Assistance Program, many of whom are elderly, in about 248,000 multi-family housing units.
Diversity of Agricultural Production:
Consistent with President Obama's desire to invest in the full diversity of agricultural production, the budget requests an additional $6 million for assisting the organic sector, establishing marketing agreements that will involve quality factors affecting food safety for leafy greens or other fruits and vegetables, and supporting independent livestock producers.
For research, the budget includes funding support our highest priorities. This includes a $70 million increase for competitive research grants that will enhance rural research and extension programs and provide incentives for teachers to pursue professional development. The budget also requests an increase of $10.8 million to develop tools and strategies for mitigating and adapting to global climate change. We are also requesting an increase of $11 million to conduct research on the development of new varieties of bioenergy feedstocks as well as on developing technologies that will result in the sustainable, efficient and economic production practices of biofuels. In order to promote healthier eating habits and lifestyles, the budget includes an increase of $13 million to determine the barriers to individuals in following the healthful eating and physical activity recommendations and to develop new healthier foods.
Farm Safety Net:
In my last appearance before the Subcommittee, we discussed the Administration's proposals to improve fiscal responsibility, while supporting a robust safety net for producers that provide protection from market disruptions, weather disasters, and pests and diseases that threaten the viability of American agriculture.
I want to reassure you that the President's budget maintains the three-legged stool of farm payments, crop insurance, and disaster assistance. However, in keeping with the President's pledge to target farm payments to those who need them the most, the budget proposes a hard cap on all program payments of $250,000 and to reduce crop insurance subsidies to producers and companies in the delivery of crop insurance. While the budget includes a proposal to phase out direct payments to the largest producers, the Department is prepared to work with Congress and stakeholders as these proposals are considered.
Farm Program Delivery:
For 2010, the budget requests an increase of $67.3 million to continue activities necessary to modernize the information technology we rely on to delivery farm program benefits. I appreciate the Subcommittee's interest in this effort and the $50 million provided in the Recovery Act, which is allowing us to make progress in this area. Although this combined level of funding will allow us to continue to make progress, additional funding will be required in subsequent years to complete the stabilization and modernization efforts.
The 2010 budget fully supports partnering with landowners to conserve land, protect wetlands and improve wildlife habitat through vital Farm Bill conservation programs. For 2010, the budget includes nearly $4.7 billion in mandatory funding for conservation programs authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill.
The 2010 budget also includes $907 million in discretionary funding for on-going conservation work that provides high quality technical assistance to farmers and ranchers and addresses the most serious natural resource concerns.
Ensuring equitable treatment of all of our employees and clients is a top priority for me. By holding each USDA employee accountable for their actions and through the implementation of my recently announced civil rights plan, we are striving to make the Department a model agency for respecting civil rights. In support of these efforts, the 2010 budget includes funding to address program and employment complaints of discrimination and to increase the participation of small, beginning, and socially disadvantaged producers in USDA programs.
Outreach to Underserved Constituents:
Another key initiative is expansion of outreach to underserved constituents. The 2010 budget includes funding to support establishment of the Office of Advocacy and Outreach authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill and also provides the funding necessary to support enhanced government-to-government relations and improve Tribal consultation activities.
We are also seeking an increase of $45.8 million to ensure that USDA can reliably deliver its broad portfolio of programs in a secure IT environment. Instituting a Department-wide cyber security initiative to will eliminate critical vulnerabilities that threaten the integrity of the USDA network and the security and privacy of Departmental systems and information.
We share the President's vision of a strong economy, therefore, like other agencies, have made difficult but important budget decisions, which include eliminating wasteful and inefficient spending. The 2010 budget reflects the elimination of earmarks and funding for programs that are not as high a priority as others I have mentioned, or provide services that can be supported by other means. This includes billions of dollars in mandatory savings and discretionary savings for the termination of Resource Conservation and Development Program, the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program, EZ/EC grants, high energy cost grants, and grants for public broadcasting digital conversion.
We have begun the process of making tough decisions about where our priorities lie and have made some tough choices about where we spend our resources. These choices reflect the new direction we are moving and provide the foundation and diverse opportunities for farmers and ranchers to succeed and rural America to thrive.
That concludes my statement. I will be glad to answer questions you may have on our budget proposals.