USDA reorg plan spares major cuts despite Trump budget proposal

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told federal employees he won’t seek workforce cuts as part of the agency-by-agency government reorganization called for by President Donald Trump.

However, the USDA reorganization plan will create a new undersecretary position focused on international trade and eliminate the rural development undersecretary position. In lieu of a rural development undersecretary, the rural development agencies will report directly to Perdue’s office.

“This will be a change in the structure of USDA, but the individual offices and missions will not be altered — just the lines of reporting. And a reduction in force is not part of this plan,” Perdue said in a May 11 address. “Change can be difficult, but if we work together and embrace it, it can work for the betterment of our entire department and the people we serve.”

The USDA plan stands in contrast to the reorganization proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency, whose acting deputy director in April announced that the EPA would offer buyouts and early retirement to its federal workers. All agencies must submit their restructuring plans to the Office of Management and Budget this summer.

It remains unclear where the USDA would reduce costs if Congress made cuts similar to the president’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal.  On March 16, Trump suggested a 20.7 percent cut to USDA’s budget.

Revamping USDA’s organization chart

Overall, Perdue’s plan to reorganize the USDA will create one new undersecretary position, modify the purview of another undersecretary, and eliminate yet another undersecretary.

“Rather than add an eighth undersecretary to the seven existing positions, we decided to move some USDA agencies to places where they are better suited,” he said. “The result will leave us with the same number of undersecretaries, but with an overall organization that is better aligned and more consistent in its approach.”

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The newly-created undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs will oversee USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), which deals with international markets. It will work closely with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, whom the Senate confirmed on May 10.  Perdue said the White House has already begun looking at nominees for the new position.

“I want someone who wakes up every morning and asks the question, ‘Where can I sell more U.S. products today? And what are the barriers to trade that we can take down today?'” Perdue said, adding that the new undersecretary position was first mandated by a provision in the 2014 farm bill.

Under the existing organizational chart, FAS reported to an undersecretary who oversaw both foreign and domestic agencies.

“That arrangement mixed two different interests … under one roof, and it makes much more sense to situate the FAS under the new undersecretary for trade, where we can sharpen our focus on foreign markets,” Perdue said.

The undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services will be restructured as the undersecretary for farm production and conservation, which will oversee the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Perdue said the domestically-focused undersecretary will “provide a simplified, one-stop-shop for our primary customers.”

Perdue also called for eliminating the undersecretary for rural development, having those agencies instead report directly to him.

“The USDA reorganization will elevate the rural development agencies to report directly to the secretary of agriculture to ensure that rural America always has a seat at the table,” he said.

While Perdue said giving those agencies a direct line of communication to his office aligned with the goals of a Trump administration task force on rural prosperity, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a member of the House Agricultural Committee, said eliminating the rural development undersecretary role would hurt small-town farms.

“Today’s news is a gut punch for anyone in rural America who wants to see small businesses succeed on their Main Streets, new opportunities in their communities and better jobs for them and their neighbors,” Bustos said in a statement.