While many agricultural groups sing the praises of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue for establishing an undersecretary for trade, some staunchly reject his replacement of the undersecretary for rural development with a special assistant.
A coalition of more than a dozen organizations — including the National Farmers Union, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Center for Rural Affairs — is calling on Congress to oppose the change.
The groups sent a letter voicing their concerns to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House agriculture committees.
Perdue’s proposal would eliminate rural development as a core mission area in USDA and replace the undersecretary with a special assistant, they said.
“The Rural Utilities Service, Rural Business Service, the Rural Housing Service and the chief risk officer previously established under the office of the undersecretary for rural development, are realigned to report directly to the secretary of agriculture,” Perdue said in his memorandum. “The undersecretary for rural development position is hereby abolished.”
While the administration highlights the shift as the “elevation of rural development” as the new assistant would report directly the secretary, all undersecretaries report directly to the secretary and serve as part of his subcabinet, the groups stated.
As a core mission area, rural development is part of the USDA subcabinet. The reassignment would rescind the decision-making power that comes with being a core USDA mission area, they said.
Additionally, undersecretaries are confirmed by the Senate and held directly accountable to Congress for their office, scope and mission and special assistants are not, they said.
Rural development has a $216 billion portfolio with more than 40 programs. Among the rural development programs are home and business loans, value added producer grants and aid for community facilities, energy and water treatment programs.
“These programs provide critical resources and technical assistance for some of the most underserved communities in the country — a responsibility demanding the highest caliber of leadership and accountability,” they said.
While USDA has a broad mission to promote and support the country’s food and agriculture, rural development is the only part of USDA that has the explicit directive to support rural communities, they said.
“Rural America should not have to choose between production agriculture and critical economic development investments,” they said.
Rural America is much more than production agriculture, said Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president.
“Family farmers and ranchers need vibrant rural communities because they provide desirable amenities and jobs. Underfunding, understaffing or demoting the rural development mission area within USDA would cause real harm to programs that benefit farming and rural communities,” he said.
USDA’s rural development agencies have complex, broad and deeply important responsibilities, as do each of USDA’s mission areas, said Anna Johnson, policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs.
“By removing the position of undersecretary for rural development, rural communities will no longer have a dedicated advocate or an equal seat at the table at USDA,” she said.
“Rural America deserves a champion who is not distracted by other demands of managing the diverse responsibilities of USDA,” she said.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition views the demotion of rural development as trading away rural domestic priorities within USDA.
“Moreover, the rural development mission area is huge with many decisions to make on a daily basis, and to assume that the limited number of overworked staff in the secretary’s office will be better positioned to make and act on these decisions is questionable at best,” the organization stated.