Friday, January 31, 2014

Blanket Receipt Requirement

Sec. 12204 of the farm bill (page 895) removes the requirement that the producer ask for a receipt, so now FSA, NRCS, and RD must issue a receipt for all requests for service..

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jon Meacham Doesn't Know History?

I might as well jump on the bandwagon along with Matt Yglesias and Josh Marshall.  Meacham, who writes nicely, was apparently on Morning Joe and said something to the effect that Lincoln and FDR didn't use executive orders.  Matt and Josh raise some of the obvious points, the Emancipation Proclamation and going off gold.

I've been doing a little reading in the organizational history of USDA, and in the 30's FDR created and moved SCS and Resettlement Administration (forerunner of FmHA) around via EO's.  I don't know why, but the pattern seemed to be that Roosevelt would act, then Congress would legislate.

(I suspect Meacham phrased his point poorly--that he meant that promising to lead by issuing EO's isn't very appealing.  But FDR did promise "action" in his inaugural.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Crystal Clarity of Congress

I love this bit buried in the farm bill: (page 145)

.—In order to conserve Federal resources and prevent unnecessary paperwork burdens, the Secretary shall ensure that any additional paperwork required as a result of the regulations promulgated pursuant to subsection (a) be limited to those persons who are subject to such regulations.
 We're talking here about payment limitation and the actively engaged determination.  Either the language is meaningless, because every potential recipient of payments is "subject to" the regulations; or it's an attempt to say you can only require people who might make over the limitation to fill out any forms.  But how do you know who they are unless you collect the information?

(Similar issue arose with payment limitation back in the mid-80's.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Freedom to Farm"--RIP

Some 18 years after it was enacted, it looks as if Pat Roberts' "Freedom to Farm" will shortly be dead and buried.

Good riddance, IMHO.  I think I've always been of the opinion that it (the idea of phasing out payments) wasn't going to work and particularly it wasn't going to work the way Roberts drafted the provisions.  If you're going to phase out payments, your law needs to cover the whole process, taking the payments down to zero.  (Somewhat like the tobacco termination payments did.)  Instead they just had small reductions over a period of 5 years.  It was like a 2-pack a day smoker saying that he'd quit smoking by reducing from 40 cigarettes a day down to 35, and then he'd quit.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Farm Bill Draws Nigh

Reports are that the farm bill will hit the House floor today. But EWG has an ominous post about the possibility that some provisions will run afoul of the WTO.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

How Many Square Feet for a Company

Under one.

From a Times post on Chinese internet problems:

A simple Google search reveals that the address on Thomes Avenue in Cheyenne [to which Chinese web traffic was redirected] is not a corporate headquarters, but a 1,700-square-foot brick house with a manicured lawn.
That address — which is home to some 2,000 companies on paper — was the subject of a lengthy 2011 Reuters investigation that found that among the entities registered to the address were a shell company controlled by a jailed former Ukraine prime minister; the owner of a company charged with helping online poker operators evade an Internet gambling ban; and one entity that was banned from government contracts after selling counterfeit truck parts to the Pentagon.
I'm probably a reactionary but sometimes I get fed up with "entities" which don't do anything for society.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Identifying Discrimination in USDA Activities

USDA has published a notice of proposed rulemaking on nondiscrimination.  There's several changes, among them expanding the basis for political beliefs and gender identity.  I won't comment on that, but I will on requiring agencies to collect race, ethnicity and gender data on their customers, albeit on a voluntary basis.

I'm not sure how that works.  John Jones comes in and applies for a farm loan. He refuses to give his REG data.  He is turned down.  He appeals on the basis of REG.  Can the agency say we didn't know you were REG, so our basis for turning you down was totally rational and legal?  Can Jones say: look at me, it's obvious that I'm REG and you approved a loan in a very similar case to Sandra Smith, who wasn't REG?  And the agency says, but Sandra didn't provide REG data, so we approved her on a totally rational and legal basis?  Can the agency say only if you provide REG data can you appeal any rejection on the basis of REG?

My bottomline: I don't see how this approach to the REG data helps in the decision making and appeals process.

Grassley and Delegation of Authority

From Chris Clayton at DTN:
"Discussing the farm bill, Grassley said the principal negotiators may take his language defining an actively engaged farmer out of the farm bill and leave it up to USDA to determine who is actively engaged. This Congress is filled with lawmakers who have criticized administrative rulemaking usurping congressional authority. Yet, farm-bill conferees now seem intent on turning over rulemaking to USDA to redefine who is actively engaged as a farmer.
"The people who want to shovel this off to the administration for rulemaking, they don't want anything," Grassley said. "They want to take it out. If they could get away with taking it out, they would just take it out ... They think they can accomplish the same thing by giving to the department and the department might not do anything very significant."
Grassley's actively engaged rule only allows one person designated as the farm manager. He noted the Government Accountability Office has cited instances of 16 people classified as "managers" for a single farm entity.

Grassley reiterated there was no need to change anything in the payment-limit provisions because they were the same in both the House and Senate bills."
 I don't trust my memory because I tried and failed to find documents supporting the following: when "actively engaged" first became law, ASCS wrote regulations implementing the provision.  But I believe that the powers that be in Congress (Jamie Whitten perhaps, as he was head of House Ag and represented MS) got ASCS to back off a bit.  Don't know whether that was a provision in another law or just pressure on the USDA hierarchy.  Anyway, I'm sure FSA is looking forward to having this responsibility once again.  I'm sure.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Founders: Their Words

I may have mentioned this Founders site before, which contains the digitized correspondence of the Founding Fathers (and the Adams family).  What's neat is you can do a rapid search for terms.  Here's a list of terms and their occurrences.  (I discovered that searching on lower case picks up upper case, but not vice versa.)   Who would have thought that "electricity" would be mentioned more often than the "slave trade"?

Citizen 11,287
King 10,968
Colonies 5,581
Continent 3,334
British  17,460

United States 25,153
United Colonies  774
Constitution  7,731

Rights  16,033
Liberties 17,463
Society  17,242
Individual 6,188
Bear arms  174

Corn  2,919
Wheat 3,167
Potatoes 515
Tomato  5
Cabbage 157
Oats 806

Apples  425
Maple sugar  79

Horse 7,517
Oxen 452
Sheep 1,033
Cattle 1,782
Cow  496
Hen  151
Chicken  69

Compost  30
Marl 19
Lime 141
Manure 342

Rum  1,025
Whiskey 400
Wine 2,394
Cider  78
Ale 85
Beer 275

Gardening 1,842
Lawyer 2,673
Doctor 3,623
Farmer 2,516
Merchant 10,604
Commerce 7,537
Industry 2,392  (mostly working hard)
Teacher 485

Slave 2,953
Slavery 804
Slave trade 177

Electricity  381

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What's Happening on MIDAS: Congress Wants to Know

Getting around to the omnibus appropriations bill:  the first part of the report  dings USDA for failing to report timely on MIDAS.  Also says:
"In order to leverage existing capacity and expertise within the Department, the Secretary is directed to explore the creation of a Center of Excellence for loan servicing support functions in order to provide consolidated customer service, field office support, and centralized loan services to USDA agencies and other Federal agencies. The Secretary shall consult with employee representatives and management in the Farm Service Agency Farm Loan Information Technology, Accounting, and Finance Office loan servicing support functions; the Rural Development Deputy Chief Financial Officer and Deputy Chieflnformation Officer functions; and the Rural Housing Centralized Servicing Center."

Not sure what the quote means, except that someone, an employee, a contractor, or a congressperson has a bee in their bonnet.  "Center of Excellence"?  Sounds like bs to me.

Friday, January 17, 2014

How Committees Work: Logrolling

Via Tom Ricks the Best Defense blog, I got to this Benjamin Wittes post on the recent NSA review panel.  A sentence:
The Review Group report often has the feel of a committee of very smart people getting together and amalgamating their particular obsessions without doing the work of prioritizing them
 This is, of course, how committees work, at least committees with a certain type of task.  I'm reminded of review efforts that occurred in ASCS after a change of administration: the new people would assemble a group of employees who had supported the "outs" to review agency operations.  The group would come up with a laundry list (why is it "a laundry list" I wonder) of recommendations, some of which were reasonable IMHO, some were not, but there wasn't any cohesive overall vision to it.  Maybe given the social and bureaucratic environment there couldn't and shouldn't be a cohesive overall vision.

I assume that the process which produces such reports is simple logrolling: everyone has a pet idea or two, because the committee is deliberately diverse no one has the knowledge or motive to fight against the idea, so to keep everyone happy everyone's idea is included in the report.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The End of the Clerk

Washington Post had an article on the vanishing clerk in government offices which was good.  Down to 4 percent of employees.

Two points:
  • back in the day, way back in the day, a "clerk" was a high ranking position. The early Patent Office for example had a chief and a clerk, if I remember correctly.  As government offices grew, we kept inserting positions between the top and the bottom.  
  • back in my day, the clerk position could be a stepping stone to advancement, though not always.  I remember a clerk in my first office, who was a spinster from Boston who'd come to DC for WWII and never advanced above that rank.  But I remember more clerks who showed intelligence and diligence and were able to transition out of the clerk to the technician and later the analyst positions.  In the days when many smart women didn't go to college, that was a well-established pathway to advancement.  And when the Feds started emphasizing EEO, we had various programs which enabled black to make a similar transition.  One downside of our current emphasis on meritocracy and college is we make the road to the top much more difficult for those who don't check all the educational checkboxes.  Then we complain about a lack of upward mobility.
I can't resist being chauvinistic enough to mention that some women clerks/secretaries advanced by marrying someone in the office.  These days what people have a fancy name (which I forget) which means college grads marry college grads, no more male boss marrying female secretary.  That's good on equality grounds, but it also limits mobility.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Iron Triangle and Ideology

I've been looking at the history of FmHA recently.  Post WWII it started off mostly lending to farmers, operating and ownership loans.  Over time successive legislation gradually widened the scope to include lending for housing, for community facilities, to towns <2,500 people expanding to 50,000. 

I suspect, without researching it, that most if not all of these expansions went through without too much partisan controversy or debate. I see the "iron triangle" at work: the FmHA bureaucrats, the lobbyists, and the Congressional committees working together to push the changes through and with support from rural representatives of both parties.  I don't see ideology as playing much of a role, except a generic pro-rural development stance.  Just guessing, I'd think partisan politics probably comes into play more when a new agency is being created, when it's not a matter of adding functions to an existing agency which already has a bureaucracy with ties to Congress and to interest groups but creating something mostly from scratch.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Did Vilsack Read the USDA Strategic Plan?

Apparently Robert Gates didn't read the President's plans--Tom Ricks discusses Gates' rules for Washington officials as reflected in his memoirs:

"... don't place too much faith in strategy documents produced by the bureaucracy. "I don't recall ever reading the president's National Security Strategy when preparing to become secretary of defense. Nor did I read any of the previous National Defense Strategy documents when I became secretary. I never felt disadvantaged by not having read these scriptures." (Tom: That said, I do wonder whether such documents are perhaps useful as guidance to subordinate officials? But obviously not very much if the SecDef doesn't know or care what they say.)"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

US Is Not Truly Liberated

From Dirk Beauregarde's piece on the latest French news:
"However when François Hollande set up home at the presidential palace with his girlfriend, no one said anything. No one seemed to mind an unmarried head of state. No one seemed to care that the unofficial first lady had her own office, staff and security guards all paid for by the taxpayer. Can you imagine this happening in America?"
No, I can't.  We're still a bit puritan I guess.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Those Rich Farmers--Some Aren't

The least wealthy member of Congress:
"On the opposite side of the spectrum is Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., the least wealthy member of Congress. He had an average net worth of negative $12.1 million in 2012, due to loans for his family's dairy farm."
He's in partnership with his brothers.  I'm not sure how the net worth works, though.  Surely any commercial lender would ensure the partnership had assets to balance the loans--like $13 million worth of cows and barns and milking equipment and land?  So he might have a zero net worth, but not negative?  Something's going on here that's not explained.

Farm Exports Include Pregnant Cows

From James Fallows on Eastport, ME:

"The city has been lobbying hard for state and federal help in restoring the rail link that connected Eastport with the Maine Central Railroad until it was abandoned in 1978. But even without a rail connection, it has steadily increased its shipments by sea. One of its specialties is container ships full of (live) pregnant cows, bound for Turkey.
Pregnant cows? European beef and dairy herds, reduced by mad cow disease and other factors, are now being rebuilt, largely with American stock. When cows make the sea voyage while pregnant, their calves can be born on European soil and have the advantages of native-born treatment. To put it in American terms, the mother cows would not be eligible to run for president, but the calves would. A company called Sexing Technologies, based in Navasota, Texas, has devised a sperm-sorting system to ensure that nearly all those calves will be female, a plus for dairy herds. Chris Gardner convinced Sexing Technologies that Eastport would be an ideal transit point, and since 2010 some 40,000 cattle have been loaded aboard ships there."
Now if I could only stand the winters, Fallows makes it sound inviting.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Polar Vortex and the White House Garden

Today's Post had a garden column in which the writer bemoaned the fate of his fall-planted fava beans, but was glad he hadn't built a hoop house because the recent cold weather would have been too severe anyway.  Caused me to wonder how the White House garden survived the cold.  In past years Obamafoodorama has noted the hoop houses surviving snow, but the cold might have been too much.

On a personal note, my wife harvested the last fall-planted (transplanted) kohlrabi just before the single digit weather.  Still good.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Good of Polar Vortexes

Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm rather blood thirstily identifies a major major benefit of the current polar vortex.  (Joel Achenbach at the Post has the proper fogey attitude towards new-fangled concepts, like polar vortex.)

What's the benefit?  Below the break

Friday, January 03, 2014

RMA Done Good?

From a post on "best practices", one of which was an RMA initiative:
To counter fraud, waste, and abuse, the Agriculture Risk Protection Act of 2000 mandated the use of a data warehouse and data mining technologies to improve crop insurance program compliance and integrity. RMA asked the Center for Agriculture Excellence (CAE) at Tarleton State University to create a system to monitor and analyze the program, identifying fraud using satellite, weather, and remotely sensed data to analyze claims filed by farmers for anomalous behavior that could indicate fraudulent or other improper payments. CAE is at the leading edge of application of remote sensing to agricultural insurance.
The RMA program has had several significant impacts, including:
  • Identification of anomalous claims, plus monitoring as a preventive measure
  • Linking claims histories with weather data
  • Integration of the latest MODIS and Landsat satellite data into the data mining process
  • Automated claims analysis
The results: cost avoidance of over $1.5 billion (2001–2007) scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Estimated reductions from prior year indemnities represent more than a $23 return for every dollar spent by RMA on data mining since its inception.
One initiative produced a list of producers who were subjected to increased compliance oversight; from 2001 to 2011, this reduced unneeded indemnity payments by approximately $838 million.

Paperless FSA Operations

"The USDA Farm Service Agency offices are moving toward a paperless operation."

That's from a piece on producers receiving material by email.

I remember when the System/36 back in 1984 was being justified as allowing us to move to a paperless office.  Not sure that ever worked out.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Duplication and the USDA Cloud

From FCW on the USDA cloud:
In 1962 — in the early days of mainframe computing, punched cards and tape — then-Secretary Orville Lothrop Freeman wrote a memo warning that USDA was headed down a path of duplicative spending on IT programs.
The memo was unearthed earlier this year by someone in USDA’s National IT Center (NITC) around the time the group was pushing for certification for its private cloud under the government’s Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP). In June, USDA’s cloud offering became just the sixth infrastructure as a service to receive provisional certification under those federal security standards. It joined private-sector giants such as Amazon, Hewlett-Packard, CGI Federal, Autonomic Resources and Lockheed Martin.
Not sure what significance the USDA cloud has, it certainly won't produce rain for drought-ridden areas, but I enjoyed the reference to Freeman.  Used to be ASCS had computer centers in New Orleans, Minneapolis, and Kansas City but towards the end of Freeman's tour they got transferred over to the Department.  Minneapolis was shut down, along with a satellite center in Portland, if memory serves.  Over the years the other agencies in USDA also had some reorgs, but I notice that we still have centers in St. Louis (which I think is the old FmHA center) and Kansas City.  I suspect that means that the integration of agency operations into a seamless web where historic divisions are not obvious to the user is not happening.  C'est la vie.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Good News for the New Year: Going on to College

I think I owe a hattip to Wonkblog for a link to 13 data tables from Pew Research, all of which are interesting, though most are depressing.  But the one which is good news to me is this, showing that Hispanics who graduate from high school are going on to college at a higher rate than whites, and both blacks and Hispanics have improved their rates over the past 12 years.