Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture celebrated 150 years of existence. During the celebration, the agency’s long list of accomplishments was enumerated and its vast scope of responsibility was lauded. Yet I could not help but wonder if this is what President Lincoln had in mind when he created what he called the People’s Department in 1862. At a time when many Americans were not were sure the Union would survive the bitter and bloody Civil War that had our nation ripped apart, the President had a grander vision. Within a 6 month span of 1862, Lincoln signed into law the USDA, the Homestead Act, and the Morel Act. The first provided a way for a growing nation to feed itself; the second provided farms on which to grow that food; and the third established the land-grant university system which provided the education and technology to provide the education needed for a rural population. This was quite an accomplishment considering our current Congress cannot even pass a budget for the federal government.
Over the past 150 years, the USDA has done much to make American agriculture the most efficient and productive in the world. It has helped transform rural American from a wilderness to communities that have produced some of our nation’s greatest leaders. But, in the process of doing all these wonderful things, the USDA has grown into one of the largest and most intrusive agencies of the federal government.
The USDA has offices in almost every county in the nation, plus a presence in most other nations of the world. It feeds 32 million school children every day, and one out of every seven Americans relies on the USDA for some form of food assistance. Dale Moore, American Farm Bureau’s Deputy Executive Director of Public Policy and who was a senior staff member at USDA for eight years, says the agency is the only one in the federal government who can literally build a town from the ground up, “You take its rural development mission and all the different loans whether it’s water and sewer, power, other forms of energy, schools, churches, hospitals, the whole infrastructure part of the process as well as business and economic development. You’ve obviously got the farm program areas, the Farm Service Agency; and, when you take into account the Extension agents, you take into account the conservation work, the Forest Service work, you’ve got an agency that literally has a presence in virtually every community in the United States.” If that is not big government, I don’t know what is.
Founded to promote and facilitate the growth and increased productive capacity of agriculture, the agency to day resembles a giant kraken with tentacles reaching into almost every aspect of our lives. In fact, if you look at where most of the USDA’s budget is spent, you would think it is a welfare and social service agency. In recent years, the agency has even ventured into the realm of public health by telling us what we should and should not eat. For those who favor big intrusive government, the Department of Agriculture is the poster child.
For those of us who believe government should have limits, the USDA is an example of an overgrown bureaucracy in need of pruning. As John Stossel points out in his new book, No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails-But Individuals Succeed, efficiency and innovation are not things government is good at. He points out that some of the greatest innovations of our time did not come from government but from individuals; air conditioning and the toilet are two prime examples. The same can be said for agriculture. The mechanical, chemical, and biological innovations that have revolutionized agriculture in the past 100 years came from the private sector, not from the government.
The next 150 years will require continued innovation and increased productivity in agriculture. It will be next to impossible for the USDA to provide that kind of innovation while strapped with tighter budgets and distracted by social welfare and public health programs. Many current USDA programs could be done cheaper and better by the private sector, NASS crop reports, for example. Many other programs could and should be moved to other sectors of the federal government.
This is not likely to happen, however, since in Washington it is all about power and getting and holding onto as much of it as you can. In fact, it is more likely the USDA will get even bigger. There is already talk on Capitol Hill about creating a new undersecretary for international trade. This will add a new tentacle that will soon reach into another area of our lives.
By Gary Truitt