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Four Things the New Congress Can Do to Hold Trump’s USDA Accountable

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | January 8, 2019, 1:30 pm EST
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The 116th Congress was sworn in last week, and not a moment too soon. The president’s babysitters have given up, his administration is spiraling out of control, and our country is desperately in need of the checks and balances we were taught about in school. Newly-elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed that under her leadership, the House of Representatives will step up to its constitutional role. In addition to demanding an end to the president’s hostage-taking of our government, new congressional leaders are expected to investigate a host of high-profile issues: the president’s Russia dealings, his unexamined tax returns, the administration’s cruel and senseless border policy, and its war on our environment. But other Team Trump efforts have flown well under the radar even though they affect all of us every time we sit down to a meal.

When it comes to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its handling of food and farming issues, Congressional oversight is sorely needed. Since Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue took office in April 2017, we’ve documented the many ways he has betrayed farmers and eaters. From siding with Big Pork over small farmers to rolling back school lunch rules aimed at improving the health of the nation’s children, he has repeatedly catered to industry while disregarding science. As the new Congress gets underway, here are four ways its leaders should seek to make Secretary Perdue and his USDA more accountable to the public interest:

1. Safeguarding federal dietary guidelines from industry manipulation. 

Every five years, the federal government revises and reissues the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), and an update is due in 2020. These recommendations for healthy eating aren’t just intended to guide our individual decisions at the supermarket and the dinner table. In fact, their primary purpose is to offer science-based recommendations to help shape the National School Lunch Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and other efforts to improve public health—many of which are carried out by the USDA.

Since its inception in 1980, the guidelines update process has been rigorous and evidence based, relying on the best science and advice from nutrition experts. But that process is about to run smack into the Trump administration, where science and expertise aren’t exactly valued. And with Perdue’s USDA leading the process (in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services), we’ve already seen signs of trouble. Back in October 2017, for example, Perdue reorganized the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in a way that threatens its scientific integrity, and he has hired officials with deep food industry ties to run the process.

The new Congress should:

  • Take a hard look at the USDA structures and personnel that will shape the next iteration of the DGAs and be on guard for undue influence from industry lobby groups
  • Examine the corporate ties and financial conflicts of the members of the new Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee when it is announced (likely this February)
  • Reject a repeat of 2015, when—at the tail end of the DGA process—heavily lobbied members of Congress sneaked into law industry-friendly provisions that eroded the integrity of the guidelines and precluded what could have been groundbreaking efforts to improve food safety, security, and sustainability.

2. Challenging Secretary Perdue’s attacks on hungry people.

We’ve written a lot on this blog about the value of the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). This effective, evidence-based program is the first line of defense against hunger and food insecurity for nearly 21 million American households. In 2016, the program lifted more than 3.5 million people out of poverty—nearly half of them children—and reduced food insecurity rates by up to 30 percent. But House Republicans held up the farm bill all last year in an effort to gut the program. And when that failed, just days before Christmas, Secretary Perdue announced a proposed new SNAP rule that would achieve similar results by denying benefits to work-ready adults who have trouble maintaining steady employment. Perdue’s new rule basically circumvents the judgment of last Congress in the final farm bill, and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), who just took the gavel as chairman of the House Rules Committee, is promising a fight. Moreover, on its first day in session, the new House voted to adopt a congressional rules package that instructed the chamber’s general counsel to “immediately explore all possible legal options” for responding to Perdue’s proposed rule.

The new Congress should also:

  • Make it clear that any other proposed rules that would undermine SNAP will not be tolerated;
  • Continue to champion smaller nutrition programs, such as the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive program (formerly known as the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program) that work alongside SNAP to help families purchase more healthy foods.

3. Stopping Perdue from sidelining USDA science.

The USDA employs thousands of scientists and makes significant investments in agricultural and food research—some $3 billion annually. But despite the department’s stated commitment to “the best available science”, the reality under Secretary Perdue has often looked different (ahem) and many of the department’s scientists have raised concerns about the effects of political interference. Then last summer, Perdue abruptly announced a plan to relocate two of the four USDA science agencies—the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—to undetermined sites outside the national capital area. He would also remove ERS from the purview of the USDA’s chief scientist and placed it instead within the Secretary’s office. More than 1,100 scientists have opposed the move, which looks like an attempt to marginalize and politicize these science agencies. Last fall, lawmakers requested a review of the plan by the USDA’s inspector general, and in the waning days of the last Congress, a group of House members introduced a bill to stop it.

Lawmakers should reintroduce the bill in the new Congress, and they should:

  • Investigate the shake-up decision to determine if it was politically motivated;
  • Examine Perdue’s legal authority for removing ERS from the chief scientist’s jurisdiction;
  • Challenge Perdue’s claims of recruitment and retention challenges at ERS and NIFA; and
  • Insist that he produce a claimed cost-benefit analysis of the proposal and a plan for ensuring program continuity and mitigating staff attrition.

4. Ensuring the new farm bill works for farmers, eaters, and future generations.

Last June, the House and Senate each passed a version of a farm bill, that five-year, $1 trillion legislative package that affects all parts of our food system: what farmers grow and how they grow it, the price of food and who can afford it, and more, with huge implications for our health, our economy, social justice, and the environment. The two proposals couldn’t have been more different, and—backed by the Trump administration—House leaders refused to budge from their short-sighted, punitive version for months. But in its waning days, the last Congress finally reauthorized this important legislation, and while the final product isn’t perfect, it maintains the SNAP program and makes other important investments in our food system that must be completely and properly implemented.

The new Congress should:

  • Conduct rigorous oversight of USDA to ensure full and effective implementation of all aspects of the newly-enacted 2018 farm bill;
  • Hold regular hearings to question Secretary Perdue and other USDA officials regarding SNAP implementation;
  • Use oversight power to ensure that the USDA is effectively promoting funding opportunities and, for new programs, expeditiously writing rules, creating systems, and hiring staff to implement them; and
  • Use the power of the purse to ensure that all farm bill programs are fully funded at the levels Congress intended.

Admittedly, there are many issues demanding the attention of lawmakers. New ones every day, in fact. But food and farming issues are too important—to all of us—to be left to the whims of a dangerously irresponsible administration. Congress must act to safeguard the safety net that keeps our neighbors from going hungry, the dietary advice that keeps us all healthy, and the science and other investments we need to maintain a safe and sustainable food supply for the future. UCS will be working with allies on Capitol Hill to make sure that they do.

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