‘They literally take food off their table’

Politico | By Ryan McCrimmon | February 3, 2020

In a rare bipartisan move last June, Republicans and Democrats teamed up to scuttle an Agriculture Department proposal that would have shuttered job training centers for at-risk youth across the country — an idea that blindsided lawmakers and seemed to lack much explanation or underlying data.

Rep. Dan Newhouse blasted Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan, which he said would close some of the highest-performing facilities in the popular program, contrary to USDA’s claims. “It appears the administration’s rollout of this proposal was done carelessly — and without the data or the statistics to point to any rhyme or reason as to how the decisions were made,” the Washington Republican said at a committee hearing.

Perdue called off the site closures soon after. But the hasty rollout and bipartisan backlash pointed to a problem that has repeatedly dogged the department: Many of USDA’s recent actions have been marred by missing pieces of critical data, assertions challenged by outside experts or other struggles to demonstrate the reasons for major shifts in federal food and farm policy.

The trend has raised questions from critics about how USDA leaders are making decisions with huge implications for struggling farmers, food stamp recipients and workers in dangerous meatpacking jobs, among other aspects of America’s food system.

“They operate much more on anecdote and ideology than facts and data,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the House Agriculture Committee. “I’ve seen a dramatic shift with this administration using less reliance on data, less interest in talking about data, or completely ignoring it when the facts don’t go their way.”

When USDA rolled out a proposal in July to crack down on eligibility for food stamps, there was a key figure absent from the Trump administration’s formal analysis of the rule: how many low-income kids would lose automatic access to free school meals. Lawmakers hounded USDA officials for months to track down those figures, which turned out to be twice as high as USDA initially indicated.

“I’ve seen a dramatic shift with this administration using less reliance on data, less interest in talking about data, or completely ignoring it when the facts don’t go their way.” – Rep. Chellie Pingree, a member of the House Agriculture Committee

In June of last year, the department’s internal watchdog launched an investigation into whether officials used flawed data to support a new rule allowing meatpackers to accelerate their pork processing lines to high speeds that could endanger plant workers.

And agricultural economists have challenged the calculations USDA used to structure its $20 billion-and-counting trade bailout for farmers, which has been criticized for paying too much to some farms.

Those cases and others reviewed by POLITICO highlight a pattern of questions surrounding the data and analysis behind many of the department’s most ambitious policy moves. The trend has fueled complaints from members of Congress who feel left in the dark, and it’s fed criticism that Perdue and his top officials are making political decisions first and gathering the relevant facts later, according to lawmakers, agricultural research experts and former USDA staff.

“The administration has made moves to reduce the amount of evidence that enters into the policymaking process,” said Rebecca Boehm, an economist with the nonpartisan Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s obviously political, and special interests come into it. But bottom line is the public loses, farmers lose.”

While every president faces scrutiny over how they set federal policies, and whether those actions stem from objective analysis or political objectives, experts suggest President Donald Trump has ushered in a new era of fact-free decision-making, a sharp departure from previous administrations of either party.

The Center for Science and Democracy, part of the Union of Concerned Scientists, published a study in 2018 analyzing violations of “scientific integrity” under each administration dating back to the 1950s. The researchers concluded that “the Trump administration’s actions reflect a new evolution and escalation” of disregard for science and in some cases were “unprecedented.”

For his part, Perdue has frequently talked up the need for “sound science” at USDA, telling POLITICO last year that “we’re very serious when we say we’re fact-based, data-driven decision makers.”

A department spokesperson reiterated that point, claiming the secretary “has emphasized the importance of ensuring USDA is facts-based and data-driven, especially when creating and developing policies. To achieve this, the department not only relies on data and science from within our agencies … but has also worked to improve data integration so we can measure decisions and outcomes against clear performance standards.”

But longtime agriculture policy watchers say USDA’s actions under Trump don’t match its rhetoric.

“If this administration wants to be transparent and use evidence-based policy, then what we’re seeing at USDA seems not to be in line with that stance,” said Susan Offutt, who led the department’s Economic Research Service for a decade under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Jobs on the chopping block

Perdue’s short-lived plan to end the longstanding Forest Service job training program left lawmakers on both sides scratching their heads about how the decision was made.

The centers train low-income youth to respond to natural disasters, maintain national forests and work on rural infrastructure projects. Perdue wanted to hand them over to the Labor Department, which already oversees a much larger number of job training sites.

But the move entailed shuttering nine facilities in rural districts across the country and potentially laying off some 1,100 workers — a deal-breaker even for normally supportive members of Congress.

USDA’s hasty rollout didn’t help, either. Lawmakers said they weren’t briefed in advance of the May announcement, and the chief of the Forest Service told her staff she was given just four days’ notice.

After the rocky launch, Perdue’s attempts to justify the changes to Congress fell flat, as Republicans from Newhouse to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lobbied the administration to back down.

In an interview earlier this month, Newhouse praised Perdue for listening to lawmakers and changing course. “They wanted to make sure that taxpayer dollars were being used as efficiently as possible,” he said. “On paper, it probably looked like the right thing to do to consolidate these centers.”