Pruning the USDA

GROWING is what the United States Department of Agriculture is all about. And, through the decades, the USDA has grown about as fast as the many crops it has nurtured.

Now, a couple of United States senators - both from farm states - say it's time to weed out programs and offices that are duplicative or no longer needed.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the committee, make a strong case for slimming down the department, which since its beginnings in the late 19th century has been a bulwark for a prime sector of the American economy.

Over many decades, federal agriculture programs have influenced the lives of millions. The Homestead Act of 1862 attracted Americans westward to till the fertile interior. The Morrill Act established agricultural and mechanical colleges in all states. Enactment of the 1936 Soil Conservation Act encouraged responsible land use. USDA agencies like the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Farmers Home Administration, and Soil Conservation Service have served the nation well.

But in the waning years of the 20th century two things (at least) have happened: The number of true farmers has dwindled, and the USDA has become bloated, entrenched, and too costly.

According to a US Census Bureau report just out, fewer than 1 in 50 Americans live on farms today, and not all of those work on the farm. In 1900, 4 out of 10 Americans lived on farms - and most of them worked there, too.

Senator Lugar wants Congress to set up a 12-member bipartisan committee to to study USDA field offices and headquarters and make recommendations within 100 days to Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan. But Mr. Madigan, who was for 17 years a GOP congressman from Illinois, says he already has a plan for reviewing USDA operations and bringing them up to date. Meanwhile, he is proceeding to open seven new regional offices for the Regional Development Administration.

Lugar says the department should be closing field offices, not renting new ones: "It makes absolutely no sense to waste half a million dollars opening seven new offices when the department already has over 7,000 offices."

Secretary Madigan recently hired 10 organizational experts to help establish better cooperation and data sharing between USDA offices. He also points out that 40 percent of his department's work force is in the US Forest Service and 60 percent of Agriculture's budget is spent on food-assistance programs.

Meanwhile, Lugar has singled out 92 county offices of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service which he says spent more in 1991 for administrative costs than in aiding farmers.

It appears that Leahy, Lugar, and other critics have made their point and that the likelihood of beneficial change is strong.

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