At USDA, Obama Has Ambitious Goals, Faces Intractable Problems

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008

On the campaign trail, President-elect Barack Obama said his administration would help small family farms, end childhood hunger and upgrade roads and bridges in rural areas.

His commitment to the rural and impoverished parts of America helped secure critical victories for him in Midwestern Corn Belt states, such as Iowa and Minnesota, and has heightened expectations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Obama prepares to appoint an agriculture secretary to oversee wide-ranging efforts.

In cash-strapped times, the challenges of mounting new initiatives are daunting. And the USDA is still battling long-running problems: subsidy programs that give huge sums to ineligible, millionaire farmers; a food inspection system that puts Americans at risk for food-borne illnesses; and nutrition programs that fail to identify more than 30 percent of Americans who live in poverty and are at risk of hunger every month.

"Things are not working like they should. When things go wrong, it's difficult if not impossible sometimes to determine who should take responsibility," said Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "The mission of the department needs to be examined; there needs to be some restructuring."

Officials in the Bush administration defended the department's record over the past eight years, saying that despite the need for continued reforms, the agency has successfully responded to a number of crises and has kept the agricultural industry healthy, its core mission.

"We have established a very good foundation. The country produces what is essentially a positive in our balance of trade with agriculture," said USDA press secretary Keith Williams. "In a country where we import more than we send out, agriculture continues to be a bright spot."

Many of the problems that Obama wants to tackle have been controversial for several decades. Improper payment of crop subsidies -- intended to help struggling family farmers -- is a prime example.

Last week, a report by the Government Accountability Office asserted that the USDA continued to give federal subsidies to ineligible, wealthy farmers despite a series of congressional reforms. Between 2003 and 2006, more than 2,700 farmers who were earning more than the cutoff of $2.5 million annually continued to receive subsidies. Unwarranted payments totaled $49 million.

"Without better oversight to ensure that farm program funds are spent as economically, efficiently and effectively as possible, USDA had little assurance that these funds benefit the agriculture sector as intended," the report said.

Within hours of the report's release, Obama said the findings represented "a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as president."

However, the response from some other Democrats shows how difficult it will be to rein in subsidies.

"You need to look at the risk that is involved with crops. One year you might make 2 1/2 million, but another year you can lose 2 1/2 million -- you don't get credit for that," said Peterson, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota. "If you reduce subsidies, the cost of food will go up."

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