USDA to seek extra money to fix computer glitch

In what appeared to be an acute embarrassment for the Bush administration, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns acknowledged Tuesday that the Farm Service Agency computer system that provides payments to farmers has broken down and that he will have to ask Congress for a special allocation to fix it.

Since the 1930s, USDA has operated a system of offices in every county in the country to which farmers go to register their acreage and sign up for subsidies and disaster aid. In past years, the administration has argued that USDA could close or consolidate county offices because farmers could file online. Congress, however, has resisted those closures.

Johanns did not mention the computer problem in his formal testimony on the fiscal 2008 budget before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. But he did respond when Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Robert Bennett, R-Utah, noted that he had been receiving complaints from farmers who had been told they should attempt to use the FSA computer system only at certain hours.

Bennett added that he assumed Johanns has a plan to deal with the problem since the administration did not ask for money to address it in the budget.

Johanns told Bennett that he was going to have to ask for "help" with the computer system.

"Does 'help' mean money?" Bennett asked.

"It always does in government," Johanns replied, adding that within three weeks USDA would make a "business case" for its request.

Johanns said the FSA software began to malfunction in 2006 when the agency was trying to use the system for the milk income loss contract program, and that the situation had only gotten worse.

Johanns said that when a farmer puts information into the system, that information is forwarded to the FSA computing center in Kansas City, but that if the agency does not process the information within a certain period of time "the information is knocked out." The computer system is "dark" part of the day in parts of the country, Johanns added.

Johanns said that he would ask for money for a "short-term response," but that it would take three years to build a proper computer system for FSA.

When asked after the hearing if farmers should give up trying to file applications online, Johanns said, "Today would not be a good day to flex your muscles with our system."

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