Tag: usda

The Hyperactive Federal Government

The problem with the federal government is not just its vast size but its increasing scope. It has expanded into many areas that should be left to state and local governments, businesses, charities, and individuals. The federal expansion is sucking the life out of the private sector and creating a top-down bureaucratic society.

Many people in Washington seem to think that nothing would ever get done without the help of Uncle Sam. They seem to have no idea that businesses invest, towns and cities grow, people help people, and problems are solved every day in billions of ways across our nation without guidance from central government experts.

Take a look at the new “Rural Development Progress Report” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Rural programs are just $6 billion out of the $150 billion USDA budget, which in turn is just a small sliver of the $4 trillion federal budget. Yet this relatively small USDA division has its subsidy tentacles into everything, as the following giveaways from the 2015 Progress Report show:

Food Labeling Regulations Are Bad for Your Health

Besides offering unrealistic tax reform plans, most of the presidential candidates this year made some nod to regulatory reform in their 2016 campaigns. For the most part these involve some sort of wholesale examination of the rules currently in place to determine which can be safely jettisoned to save consumers and businesses billions of dollars. 

Such regulatory reform is counterproductive, though: As Sam Batkins and I point out in a forthcoming piece in Regulation magazine, once companies have spent what is necessary to comply with the new regulations-regardless of whether or not it is cost effective–there’s little to be gained from repealing it. 

However there is one regulation which, if repealed, would enormously improve the well-being of consumers at very little cost to business: the current food labeling rules. 

USDA/HHS Removes Consideration of “Sustainability” from Dietary Guidelines

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services made headlines last winter when they released the draft form of their updated dietary guidelines and revealed that they were considering “sustainability” as a factor in their recommended diet—and by “sustainable” they meant foods that had “lower greenhouse gases” associated with their production. This favors plant-based foods over animal- based ones.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan now even had its far-reaching fingers in our food. We found this somewhat rude.

Under the wildly-crazy assumption that all Americans, now and forever, were to convert to vegetarianism, we calculated that the net impact on future global warming as a result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions was two ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius (0.0002°C) per year. Not surprisingly, we concluded if one were worried about future climate change, “ridding your table of steak shouldn’t be high on the list.”

We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help: School Lunch Edition

How much does a “free” school lunch cost?

In the last few years, First Lady Michelle Obama has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make school lunches healthier. In 2011, Neal McCluskey argued that, though well-intentioned, the changes would result in more wasted food, higher costs, and major implementation challenges. The General Accounting Office has now issued a report that confirms these concerns:

According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements.

When such decisions are made at the local level, schools can solicit and respond to feedback from parents and students. However, when the proverbial faceless bureaucrat in some distant Washington office decides, the rules tend to be uniform and inflexible, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences:

The federal government’s changes to school lunch menus have been disastrous, causing problems for cafeterias trying to comply with the rules and leaving the menu so expensive or unpalatable that more than 1 million students have stopped buying lunch, according to a government audit…

One school district told federal investigators that it had to add unhealthy pudding and potato chips to its menu to meet the government’s minimum calorie requirements. Other school districts removed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from their elementary school menus.

Five of the eight school districts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office, the official watchdog for Congress, said they believed students were going hungry because of smaller entree portions demanded by the rules.

In other words, the so-called “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” actually resulted in some kids being served less healthy food while other kids went hungry.

Two-thirds of states reported on the GAO survey that implementation in 2012-13 was a “very great challenge” or an “extreme challenge.” The report noted that much of the difficulty was related to the sheer volume of regulations. In just 18 months, the USDA issued 1,800 pages of “guidance” for following the new rules. Moreover, the “guidance” was “provided too late in the 2012-2013 school year to be helpful” because schools “had already planned menus and trained food service staff” on what they thought the new rules required. However, some guidance memos “either substantively changed or contradicted aspects of previously issued memos.” When state officials contacted the USDA’s regional offices for guidance on understanding the “guidance,” the USDA staff were “sometimes unable to answer state questions on the guidance.” 

Let’s hope this serves as a cautionary tale for those who want the federal government to play a larger role in education policy in general.

Raisin-Taking Claim Now Ripe for Consideration on the Merits

As Ilya noted, the Supreme Court yesterday cleared the procedural roadblocks for the Horne family, which grows and processes raisins in California, to challenge the operations of the USDA’s marketing order system as an unlawful taking of their property without compensation. The Hornes say that under the USDA’s California Raisin Marketing Order, the Raisin Administrative Committee demanded that they hand over 47 percent of their raisins to be disposed of in ways that do not compete with sales in the domestic retail raisin market, such as export programs and school lunches. 

47 percent! Back in January that figure reminded me of an earlier scale of government extraction: 

Max Boot, who has written a new book on the history of guerrilla movements, tells how Shamil, firebrand leader of a celebrated 19th-century Muslim insurgency in Chechnya and Dagestan, began to lose the allegiance of “many ordinary villagers who balked at his demands for annual tax payments amounting to 12 percent of their harvest.” Instead, they switched their allegiance instead to the rival Russian czar, whose demands were more modest.

If only Washington were content with the czar’s less-than-12 percent. For more on regulatory takings, check out this testimony from way back in 1995 by Cato’s own Roger Pilon before the House Judiciary Committee.

Food Stamps Growth Has Bipartisan Roots

Republicans are jumping on the news that participation in the food stamps program hit a new record of 46.7 million individuals in June (about one in seven Americans). In a sluggish economy, an increase in food stamps participation is to be expected. Thus, it’s fair to hold up the increase in food stamps usage as being emblematic of the Obama administration’s failed economic policies. In addition, the president’s 2009 “stimulus” bill increased benefits and eligibility.

What Republicans don’t want to acknowledge is the role they played in expanding the food stamps program before President Obama ever took office. The 2002 farm bill—passed by a Republican-controlled House and signed by Republican President George W. Bush—expanded the food stamps program. As the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page correctly noted yesterday, “The food-stamp boom began with the George W. Bush Republicans, who expanded benefits in the appalling 2002 farm bill.”

The 2008 farm bill further expanded the program. However, on this the Journal lets the GOP off the hook when it says “But the supercharger was a 2008 bill out of the Pelosi Congress that goosed eligibility and rebranded the program as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to reduce the stigma of being on the dole.” Although Bush vetoed that farm bill (he didn’t cite the increase for food stamps in his veto message), congressional Republicans were instrumental in enabling the “Pelosi Congress” to override it. In the House, 99 (out of 195) Republicans joined most Democrats in voting to override the veto. In the Senate, only 12 Republicans voted to sustain Bush’s veto.

One of those Republicans who voted to override Bush’s veto—and who also voted for the 2002 farm bill—is Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions, who is the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, has been a chief critic of the growth in food stamps under President Obama. Sessions has been particularly critical of the administration’s efforts to “recruit” new food stamps recipients. For example, a “Community Outreach Partner Toolkit” produced by the USDA in 2011 that suggests throwing a “great party”:

Host social events where people mix and mingle. Make it fun by having activities, games, food, and entertainment, and provide information about SNAP. Putting SNAP information in a game format like BINGO, crossword puzzles, or even a “true/false” quiz is fun and helps get your message across in a memorable way.

It’s probable, however, that the food stamps outreach is being driven by the bureaucrats at the USDA. To Sessions’s credit, he acknowledges as much in a press release on the USDA’s recent cessation of radio ads designed to attract Spanish-speaking individuals to the program. It’s important to note that these “radio novellas” were produced during the Bush administration. Similarly, a partnership with the Mexican government to make Mexican nationals more aware of U.S. welfare programs—including food stamps—was signed by Bush’s agriculture secretary Ann Veneman in 2004.

The Obama administration certainly deserves to be heavily criticized for the growth in government dependency. But attacks from Republicans (e.g., Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamps president”) have been too disingenuous. Yes, Republicans are now calling for the food stamps program to be cut, but given their culpability in its growth—and the fact that it’s an election year—it’s hard to view their sudden discovery of religion as anything more than standard politics.

Addendum: Here’s Chris Edwards’ recent chart showing the growth in food stamps spending under presidents Bush and Obama:

The USDA: Your One-Stop Shop

Politico yesterday reported that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is upset. According to him, the USDA just don’t get no respect:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants to spread the message to anyone who’ll listen: The U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t just about farming anymore.

“This department is not appreciated,” the former Iowa governor told POLITICO in a recent interview. “We are engaged in virtually every issue and always can provide some support and some meaningful solution to a problem that is vexing folks.”

To prove the point, he challenges anyone to name an issue that doesn’t touch the department’s portfolio, from bolstering national security by helping wean Afghan farmers from growing opium — a cash crop that funds Islamic insurgents fighting U.S. troops — to providing USDA-backed home loans as a way to repopulate the sparse countryside. [emphasis added, with disgust]

Not bad for an agency that shouldn’t even exist.