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Trump Axing Advisory Committees Is Bad for Farmers and Nation’s Food Supply

, Economist | September 30, 2019, 3:51 pm EDT
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Earlier this summer, the Trump administration issued an Executive Order that would arbitrarily eliminate one-third of all federal advisory committees (FACs) across the government, while restricting an agency’s ability to form new FACs. FACs provide an avenue for outside experts and stakeholders to weigh in on federal programs and policies, including roughly 150 that advise the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) on a variety of food and farming issues. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and other agency and department heads have until today to make these cuts.

Our own Union of Concerned Scientists analysis estimates that the Trump administration EO will eliminate between 20 and 26 FACs that advise USDA on trade, animal health, agricultural statistics, and other key food and agriculture issues.

Why would the administration want to shrink the role of outside experts and stakeholders from policy-making processes? Obviously, science advice can be incredibly inconvenient to the administration’s political and ideological objectives. When it’s not tweeting typos, nonsense about nuking hurricanes, or imagining a fake hurricane path that doesn’t exist (and then threatening to fire anyone who says otherwise), the administration is cleverly and incrementally hard at work destroying the mechanisms by which good public policy gets made in Washington.

I’ve seen FACs in action, they work

The federal government could never have all the expertise it needs in-house, which is why FACs have proven essential to evidence-based policymaking since the Federal Advisory Committee Act was passed into law in 1972. I’ve witnessed firsthand how important these FACs are to this process. Earlier this summer I attended the annual public meeting of USDA’s National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board (NAREEE Board for short, say phonetically “NAIR-EE”). NAREEE was established in 1996 as a scientific FAC (each FAC has a different function).

Its website states its pretty fantastic objective: “to contribute to effective federal agricultural research, education and economics programs through broad stakeholder feedback and sound science in its ongoing role as advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture.” Importantly, NAREEE’s jurisdiction includes the two research agencies that are being relocated outside Washington, DC as well as the National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS), responsible for conducting the Census of Agriculture, and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which conducts research on climate change impacts on agriculture, among other topics.

I witnessed the NAREEE board of outside experts do exactly what it was designed to do: give the Secretary of Agriculture advice on key programmatic and policy decisions. At the meetings this year, Board members asked pointed questions to USDA leadership, including to Deputy Undersecretary of the Research, Extension and Education mission area (REE) Scott Hutchins about how the proposed relocation would impact the mission and functions of ERS and NIFA. Then, in case you missed it, a few weeks later the board issued a public statement on the research agency relocation, stating that:

“The NAREEE Advisory Board recommends the Secretary seek broad stakeholder input before making major operational changes that affect the policy and functioning of science programs. The Board does not feel that this process was satisfactory in regard to the decision to relocate ERS/NIFA.” 

Of course, the administration quietly posted the statement to the NAREEE board website. To my knowledge, the statement has garnered little if any attention, which is precisely what the administration was going for—let the letter fly under the radar.  You have to wonder—if the NAREEE board had issued a statement in favor of the relocation, would USDA have made the statement more visible?

USDA FACs bring important science and stakeholders to the table

NAREEE is just one of nearly 150 USDA FACs that provide outside scientists and other stakeholders a mechanism by which to meaningfully engage with USDA policies and programs. Many are at risk under the EO, but not all. NAREEE is likely not at risk of being eliminated under the first round of cuts because it is statutorily required. However, the EO does direct the head of each federal agency to send the Office of Management and Budget (OMB, which will implement the EO FAC cuts) a detailed plan for terminating or continuing statutorily required committees. So, it’s worth watching what the Administration has in store for USDA FACs prescribed in statute.

Critical USDA FACs are on the chopping block

Another critical USDA FAC that you’ve probably heard of is the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). DGAC is a rotating ensemble of non-governmental nutrition experts who meet every five years to review nutrition science and issue federal guidance on what Americans should be eating to ensure a healthy and active life. Though it is improbable that the administration would eliminate a committee with significant work underway (namely, the development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans), this committee isn’t mandated in statute—which puts it at risk under the current EO.

Another committee of particular concern that is at risk under the EO is the Advisory Committee on Agricultural Statistics, which advises the Secretary of Agriculture on the collection of data about agriculture and reports that are generated with such data.  Currently, there are clues that it may be safe from cuts: a notice seeking nominations for committee members was posted in February 2019.

Many other USDA FACs are at risk under the EO. I pulled data from the Federal Advisory Committee Act database, which houses information on each FAC in existence since 1997. In 2019 there were approximately 154 USDA FACs operating. Our own analyses indicate that at least 20 but up to 26 USDA FACs not required under statute are at risk of being eliminated under the EO, which represents a 13% to 17% cut to the number of USDA FACs that have been operational or chartered at least since 2017. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot on its face. But it’s important to keep in mind that these committees are very specific to particular policies and programs, often having regional focuses, and what they each do matters a great deal more than their sheer numbers. What is more, the EO also severely limits an agency’s ability to create additional FACs to address new and evolving challenges in the food and agriculture sector.

Here is a table of the 26 committees that our analysis puts at risk under the EO. Committees with asterisks are those that were active as recently as 2017 but have not been active in 2018 or 2019.

FACs have been cut before, but arguably not by an administration so hostile to science

President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12838 on February 10, 1993, coincidentally (or not) proposing to eliminate one-third of FACs that were not required by statute.  A 1997 Government Accountability Office report found that these prior cuts turned out to actually cost the government more, not less money. So careful planning and thought must go into eliminating FACs.

Sure, there is a scenario in which the Trump administration has a good rationale for examining the current list of FACs and paring them down for good reasons. However, this administration has used nearly every play in the playbook to keep science and evidence out of the food and agriculture policy-making process. That includes suppressing researchproposing steep budget cuts to science agencies, and over the last year, waging a war on researchers at ERS and NIFA through an unsubstantiated and maybe illegal relocation.

With all that it’s already done to shrink the role of science in federal decisionmaking, it’s no surprise that USDA FACs would be the Administration’s next target.

What can be done to stop the USDA FAC purge?

Congress needs to step in to provide oversight on the process by which FACs are eliminated under this EO. Members of Congress should take a careful look at the USDA FACs on the chopping block since some focus on very specific constituencies. For example, some of the committees at risk are specific to US regions or sub-industries in the food and agricultural sector. The Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Fruits and Vegetables work is particularly timely given ongoing changes to trade deals with China and other trading partners. Eliminating this and other USDA FACs willy-nilly is just bad policymaking. Congress can and should review the USDA FACs to be eliminated and ensure that the rationale for their elimination is sound. Further, Congress should ensure that eliminating any USDA FACs does not adversely impact USDA’s policy or programs or farmers, ranchers and other key food and farm stakeholders.

Bottom line

The administration’s approach to cutting FAC’s by one-third by today (September 30) is hasty, arbitrary, and puts effective policymaking for the nation’s farmers and eaters at risk. Congress should take a hard look at the ones that get the ax.

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