Monday, April 06, 2009

Thousands Locked Out Of Commenting Process At USDA: Obama Is Away, and Vilsack Might Over Pay

The President has been having a swell ol' time in Europe, but back at home, in the mundane and crucial arena of Ag policy, things have been falling apart at USDA. Over the weekend, thousands--perhaps tens of thousands--of concerned citizens tried to send in E mail comments on the 2008 Farm Bill Farm Program Payment Limitation and Payment Eligibility rule making process, only to have these "bounce back." Apparently the comments in box for the E mail address provided by USDA--Dan.McGlynn@wdc.usda.gov --was "full." After complaints from outraged citizens, a USDA spokesperson excused the incident, saying Mr. McGlynn has been on vacation since Thursday, and that another USDA address could be used (mara.villegas@wdc.usda.gov). Um, so what if Mr. McGlynn was on vacation? His E mail doesn't function if he's not in the office? And who knows how many comments USDA will not receive?

This is not acceptable. Today (Monday) is the final day for comments, and the changes to the payment program are more important now than ever before, because the decisions for the 2008 Farm Bill payments will have an impact for years, at a time when US agriculture is already in a desperate state of affairs, thanks to its enslavement to Big Agribusiness. Historically, the USDA has privileged Big Agribusiness farmers by handing out huge cash subsidy payments based on acreage, thus giving them an unbeatable economic advantage over smaller and family farmers, who have less acreage and thus get lower payments. Capping subsidy payments has been a long-standing battle within USDA, and changing the payment program is such an important issue that President Obama actually campaigned on it, as well as mentioned it in his non-State of The Union Speech, when he again pledged to change how subsidy payments are made, calling for an "end to direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them."

Since taking office, Ag Secretary Vilsack has raised the subsidy issue numerous times, trying to figure out how to satisfy both The President's mandate while simultaneously avoiding the pitchforks of Ag committee Members in the House and Senate, who are outraged that Vilsack would even consider subsidy caps, after years of free-flowing payments. Vilsack has variously spun changes to the subsidy payments as "30,000 farmers vs. 90 million starving children;" suggested that subsidy payments could be masked as "green climate change payments;" and most recently, has backed off from the entire issue, notably by canceling the promised Rural Summit. And so far, the only concrete thing Secretary Vilsack has done is talk: In a teleconference with Ag reporters on January 26, Vilsack announced the extension of the comment period, as part of Obama's general regulatory review of Bush-era policies, which was outlined by the White House and Office of Management and Budget. Vilsack said:

"In keeping with President Obama's recent pledge to make government more transparent, inclusive, and collaborative, I would like to pursue an extended comment period so that more farmers and other individuals can participate in this rulemaking process. I'm particularly interested in suggestions that would help the Department target payments to farmers who really need them and ensure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties for future crop years."

It's swell to make this kind of laudable sound byte, but what's needed is follow-through. Everyone who's interested in Ag policy is very interested in making sure that people who really need the USDA funds get them, in particular smaller and family farmers, the fastest-disappearing segment of the farming population. Smaller and family farmers are in dire financial need at the moment, and they're crucial to developing a more localized and sustainable system for US agriculture. But if USDA can't even accept comments, how will Secretary Vilsack be able to make appropriate decisions? How will Secretary Vilsack move the USDA into the 21st century if even their e mail system is trapped in the early 1990's? It's a terrible commentary on the USDA that they can't even get their E mail system functioning properly to take comments, isn't it?

Related:
Over at Grist, Tom Laskawy parses the recent political fury over subsidies, and wonders if perhaps President Obama has demolished the entire debate...and any hope for change. Read his thoughts here.