Monday, December 01, 2008

The (Un)Importance of Being USDA Secretary

Oscar Wilde's play culminates in the hero's realization of the importance of being earnest/Earnest; the greens need to learn the unimportance of being Secretary of Agriculture.

(I write after a few weeks of concern and agitation over who Obama's Secretary will be. The latest is this post at DTN: will animal rights be a top concern or will the Secretary roll over for GM crops? The first, of course, was the omnipresent Michael Pollan in the Times Magazine, on whose piece I've drafted many more comments than I've posted.)

But the reality is, in my experience, the Secretary:
  1. can't create a new program, only Congress can do that.
  2. can't move money from one program to another, only the appropriations committees can do that.
  3. can't reorganize the department, only Congress can do that (just ask Secretary Glickman, who spent much time and effort to prepare a combination of the administrative support personnel for NRCS, FSA, and RD, only to have Congress veto it).
  4. can't close offices (without time consuming negotiation and consultation with the affected member of Congress)
  5. can't talk to the public, without telling Congress first (okay, that's an exaggeration--the prohibition is not across the board).
  6. can try to sway Congress when the farm bill is being prepared (ask Venneman and Schafer how well that worked), unfortunately there's no farm bill due during Obama's term of office.
  7. is limited in what he or she can direct USDA employees to do (like proposing user fees).

See Sec. 712 of the Agricultural Appropriations Act for an example:'"a) None of the funds provided by this Act, or provided by previous Appropriations Acts to the agencies funded by this Act that remain available for obligation or expenditure in the current fiscal year, or provided from any accounts in the Treasury of the United States derived by the collection of fees available to the agencies funded by this Act, shall be available for obligation or expenditure through a reprogramming of funds which--
      (1) creates new programs;
      (2) eliminates a program, project, or activity;
      (3) increases funds or personnel by any means for any project or activity for which funds have been denied or restricted;
      (4) relocates an office or employees;
      (5) reorganizes offices, programs, or activities; or
      (6) contracts out or privatizes any functions or activities presently performed by Federal employees; unless the Committees on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress are notified 15 days in advance of such reprogramming of funds."

(I admit, I exaggerate a bit--John Block in 1983 created a big expensive program, using CCC inventories, without Congressional authority and by strong arming the attorneys. But we don't have big CCC inventories now and Bush gave strong use of executive power a bad name.)

No comments: