Bill targets ag department slush fund worth billions

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The House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee favorably reported its spending bill along party lines Thursday. The bill’s next stop is the full House Appropriations Committee.

A major reform in the legislation, championed by Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD), stops funding abuses at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and specifically the use of what has become a bipartisan slush fund.

What is this slush fund? There is something called the Commodity Credit Corporation, which in simple terms, is an annual $30 billion funding mechanism for many farm bill programs. The entire $30 billion is usually not needed to fund these programs, so there are “leftover” funds, often in the $15 billion range. These additional funds can then be used by the agriculture secretary for a wide range of discretionary purposes to be spent at his whim.   

As a general matter, Agriculture Secretaries have not used this discretionary spending authority, or have only done so to a limited extent. This started to change some during the Obama administration. Congress rightly responded from 2012-2017 by restricting the use of the discretionary spending authority through policy riders in spending bills.

But the discretionary spending really ramped up during the Trump administration.  For example, in 2018 and 2019, the administration used the discretionary power to spend $28 billion in “trade aid” for farmers to offset the effect of retaliatory tariffs other nations imposed on U.S. goods that they imported.

Now the Biden administration is using this slush fund to spend $3.1 billion on a climate program that Congress never authorized. This program, the “Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities,” was created out of whole cloth and is a means by which the administration is trying to change the agricultural practices of American farmers, as it pushes its climate agenda.

The good news is the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee has included a policy rider in its spending bill that would broadly restrict the use of this discretionary spending authority. In other words, no more slush fund, at least for fiscal year 2024. 

This reform isn’t partisan and it isn’t even about the substance of the policies being funded.  Instead, it is first and foremost about addressing a serious separation of powers problem.  Congress has the spending power, and not the agriculture secretary. 

In recent years, Congress has failed to check these abuses at the USDA and reassert its spending power. The House agriculture spending bill would change this. Chairman Harris and those who supported the bill in the subcommittee should be commended for taking much-needed action.

But this should just be an initial step. Congress, as a whole, needs to support this effort. 

Ultimately, Congress needs to eliminate the discretionary authority altogether instead of being forced to pass policy riders in spending bills to stop these abuses. Legislators need to decide how to spend the hard-earned dollars of American taxpayers, and not just pass off such decisions to unelected officials.