USDA secretary defends proposed budget, workforce reductions

The Agriculture Department is facing a potential funding reduction and 9 percent staffing cut in fiscal 2019, and some legislators want to know why. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue tried to answer questions Wednesday from senators about recommended cuts to programs or the total elimination of programs  outlined in President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request.

The budget request calls for about $18 billion in 2019 discretionary funding, or nearly $6 billion less than Congress allocated in 2018.

USDA is also looking for 87,303  full-time equivalents (FTE) in 2019 compared to 95,933 FTEs this year — a reduction of about 8,600 employees.

Some of the biggest staffing cuts would hit the Forest Service, the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Rural Development, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Agricultural Research Service.

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Perdue said during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies that the cuts are part of an agencywide reorganization which began in 2017. From that came the new Farm Production and Conservation mission area, which consolidates the FSA, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Risk Management Agency (RMA).

“In our business reorganization we realigned our FSA offices along with our NRCS offices as well as the crop insurance or RMA offices there that are directly customer-facing,” Perdue said. “With Bill Northey finally on board as at the undersecretary for [FPAC], we’re undergoing a strategic mission-wide staffing plan. We know there are obviously some deficiencies based on attrition in various places.”

Perdue said that attrition is to be expected with a workforce of more than 100,000, and that the staffing realignments in the budget request were not due to reductions in force (RIFs) or layoffs but rather to efficiencies. He also told subcommittee chairman Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) that an initial hiring freeze for the agency had ended.

Hoeven said he was concerned about reorganizing the FSA offices, which he said were important to farmers and which the 2018 omnibus signed by the president in March prohibited USDA from closing.

“We have them open but no employees there. That’s the problem — I think there are between 60 and 70 [offices] like that,” Perdue said. “I hope that you all would give some consideration to the flexibility of managing the workforce in a way that we want to serve your constituents as much as you do.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said he was concerned about the proposal to close 20 agriculture research stations, 20 National Institute of Food and Agriculture research programs, as well as a nearly $1.1 billion cut and reduction of 880 FTEs for rural development.

When Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pressed Perdue about whether he would support rescissions to the 2018 rural development funding, in light of reports that President Trump is looking to amend the omnibus, the secretary claimed “plausible deniability.”

“We’re very grateful of the omnibus appropriation and our commitment to deploy that wisely and as quickly as possible what you’ve appropriated,” Perdue said. “I agree with you. I think once a budget is set it certainly would require extreme collaboration to look at any rescission issues in that area and we would be extremely very careful about that.”

In keeping with USDA’s IT modernization initiative, two areas growing in the budget request are the Farm Production and Conservation Business Center, established in October 2017, and the office of the chief information officer.

As a result, the budget request adds 1,750 new FTEs for the FPAC Business Center, 12 more in the CIO’s office and $15 million more  for IT modernization that relates to customer service.

USDA said it plans to consolidate end-user services its 39 data centers into a single data center and a back-up. It also plans to shrink the number of legacy networks from 17 to five, and create more user-friendly online service portals.