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OMB's handling of USDA funding has lawmaker fuming

Agriculture panel chairman seeks an investigation into shifts in money for mandatory programs.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is mad as hell at the Office of Management and Budget over the way it is handling the Agriculture Department's money, and he's not going to take it anymore.

At a June hearing, Peterson learned that OMB had allowed the Bush administration in October 2008 to use $65 million from the mandatory Conservation Reserve Program to pay landowners to allow access to hunters. CRP money is intended as an incentive for farmers to idle land for soil restoration and wildlife habitat purposes.

When the Bush administration abandoned the idea of a hunters' initiative, OMB assigned the budget authority to deficit reduction rather than give it back to USDA for its original purpose. As a result, when the Obama administration came into office and wanted to extend CRP contracts and hold a signup to put more land in the CRP, USDA found itself financially strapped.

Peterson is so incensed that he has ordered a Government Accountability Office investigation and is considering holding a hearing to figure out if OMB is engaging in the same practice in other parts of the government.

"We are not going to stand for them changing mandatory programs," Peterson said. He added that he is also opposing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's recent request to OMB that USDA be allowed to propose cuts in mandatory programs in the fiscal 2012 budget rather than comply with President Obama's order that cabinet agencies cut 5 percent of discretionary programs.

Of Vilsack's request, Peterson said, "They can't cut mandatory programs. That's our responsibility."

OMB's fiddling with conservation money first came to light at a June 17 House Agriculture General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee hearing on the farm safety net.

Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller testified at the hearing that the Obama administration planned to use some of the money being saved in a renegotiation of the standard reinsurance agreement with crop insurance companies to pay for a new signup for the CRP. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the subcommittee's ranking member, told Miller that he could not understand why it was necessary to use the savings for a program receiving mandatory funding from Congress.

Miller explained that USDA wanted to hold a general signup so that acreage in the CRP would be as close as possible to the 32 million acres allowed by Congress in the 2008 farm bill, but found that it did not have the budget authority to undertake it even though Congress had mandated it. When the Bush administration did not follow through with its hunters' initiative and OMB assigned the money to budget reduction, "We lost it," Miller said.

A USDA spokesman further explained in an e-mail that due to the Bush administration's actions, when the Obama administration wanted to extend contracts on CRP acres in fiscal 2009, the only way it could comply with OMB rules was to reduce the planned fiscal 2010 signup from 4.4 million acres to 2.9 million acres. USDA is planning a signup in August of at least 4 million acres to bring acreage up to the full 32 million acres allowed, but the agency will have to use the savings from crop insurance to pay for it, the spokesman added.

Peterson likened OMB's practice to the way appropriators cut mandatory programs when the money has not been spent. "What good is mandatory [spending] if people can shift" the way the money is spent?," Peterson asked.

A Peterson spokeswoman said he has asked the administration for a complete briefing on OMB's policies, but has not received a response.

An OMB official told CongressDaily in an e-mail Wednesday, "Due to various factors, OMB's baseline for the CRP program did not assume 32 million acres of enrollment until further in the budget's out year time line. Administrative PAYGO, which originated under the Bush Administration and has been continued under the Obama Administration, require that additional increases in mandatory spending above the baseline scoring estimate must be offset when a department is considering administrative actions that would result in increasing the costs of mandatory programs."