During a Thursday morning Senate Agriculture Committee hearing leaders of USDA agencies pledged to combat fraud, onerous red tape and duplication of efforts. They also made it clear honoring those pledges would be easier if Congress would update their office technology – some 1980s-era.  

“We have some 20 different conservation programs,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the committee. “Do we need 20? Can we create efficiencies? Can we do things better in terms of streamlining.”

USDA’s Office of Rural Development “has 40 different programs. Do we need 40? Can we bring them together and create more efficiency? I suggest we can.”

Congress and government agencies should take a lesson from U.S. farmers, said South Dakota Sen. John Thune. “Our farmers have learned how to make every seed and every drop of fuel, chemicals and fertilizer provide the maximum benefit possible. That’s something the federal government must likewise do: increase its efficiencies and cost effectiveness of its operations. Farmers are a great example to us.”

Common criticisms

Two frequent criticisms are leveled against Rural Development, said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. “I hear how USDA Rural Development programs are duplicative or inefficient or not that different from what (other government agencies) do.

“In (rural) Ohio, I hear the application process can be so cumbersome that far too many people and entities … have just given up.”

Rural Development, said Dallas Tonsager, USDA Under Secretary, “was created to be a mini-version of the entire federal government in a lot of ways – specifically for rural America.”

This led to “a very broad tool set, some 40 programs. … We recognize that many of our programs are very similar to other programs throughout the federal government. We’ve tried very specifically to work with them. We have an agreement with (the Small Business Administration), for example. We believe their tool for business lending works better than ours, in many cases in rural areas.”

As for efficiency, continued Tonsager “we have a $150 billion loan portfolio … with less than a 2 percent delinquency rate. That’s important. Our proposed budget by the (Obama) administration was $2.4 billion, this year. We made that into $36 billion and our largest programs are at zero budget cost.”