A beleaguered President Trump returned to farm-rich Iowa last Wednesday for an upbeat rally to escape his political woes and investigations in Washington.
Trump said the 6,000 supporters who turned out for the event in Cedar Rapids were “American patriots” and stressed that he was relieved to be away from the Washington political “swamp” and back in the nation’s heartland.
“It is great to be back in the incredible, beautiful, great state of Eye-oo-wa,” Trump bellowed to the cheering crowd. Trump carried Iowa and the rest of the farm belt in the November election, in part because of his support for corn-based ethanol, and vowed to give voice to forgotten farmers once he reached the White House.
But the Republican president has a funny way of showing his appreciation.
Trump is pursuing a budget strategy on Capitol Hill that would drastically shrink Department of Agriculture personnel in Washington and throughout the country, devastate many of the most popular farm research and rural development programs, and overhaul and reduce one of the most popular government crop subsidy programs.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, a premier farm group, declared that "this budget fails agriculture and rural America.”
Zippy Duvall, the group’s president, said the proposed budget “would gut federal crop insurance, one of the nation’s most important farm safety-net programs. It would drastically reshape important voluntary conservation programs and negatively impact consumer confidence in critical meat and poultry inspection.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS), a major agriculture booster, said in a statement a week ago that: “Many people are looking at this year’s budget with hope and despair. We’re going to go through a thoughtful process to determine appropriate funding levels for agriculture research and programs that support American producers.”
Many lawmakers have dismissed Trump’s budget proposals as “dead on arrival,” and it is certain that agriculture spending bills for the coming year will look much different after Congress asserts its will later this summer and fall. Still, for a new Republican president who almost gets misty-eyed talking about his affection for Iowa and the rest of rural America, his agriculture spending policies are mystifying.
Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request is seeking a 21 percent reduction in USDA discretionary spending next year, or the third largest percentage cut in an agency behind the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department.
Spending next year would total $17.9 billion, or $4.7 billion less than this year. Some of the biggest cuts would be in personnel, agriculture research, nutrition and food assistance for the poor, and a plethora of programs that benefit small rural areas.
The president and his budget director also stunned many in the farm community by advocating a series of reforms that would sharply reduce mandatory farm bill programs by $228 billion over the coming decade, including cuts of more than 25 percent in food stamps and billions of dollars in reductions in farm subsidies.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the administration’s call for new restrictions on government-subsidized crop insurance, a pricey mainstay of American agriculture.
Trump is seeking a 36-percent reduction in crop insurance over the coming decade, which would constitute a far more ambitious reform effort than the one unsuccessfully advanced by the Obama administration
Government-subsidized crop insurance allows agricultural producers including farmers, ranchers and other to protect themselves against the loss of their crops due to natural disasters or the loss of revenue due to declines in the prices of agriculture commodities in an unpredictable global economy.
Crop insurance is the USDA’s largest farm support program, costing roughly $8 billion a year, and some government watchdog groups including Taxpayers for Common Sense insist that much of it is a waste. Currently, the government picks up 60 percent of the premium cost of the insurance while the farmers pay the remaining 40 percent.
Under one of Trump’s proposals, farmers taking part in the program would receive a maximum of $40,000 a year in government premium subsidies before being cut off. That change would save taxpayers $16.2 billion over ten years, according to Politico, but add significantly to farmers’ operating costs.
However, crop insurance has a strong constituency on Capitol Hill, where Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), chairman of an agriculture subcommittee, told Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently that crop insurance “has become the number one risk management tool for our producers.”
“Particularly as we look at a drought year, low commodity prices, it is vitally important,” Hoeven stressed.
Perdue, the former Republican Georgia Governor now in charge of the Agriculture Department, has been forced to bob and weave to defend the harsh budget proposals, both on Capitol Hill and at the USDA, where many employees are worried about layoffs or cutbacks and a downgrading of vital research and scientific exploration.
In a recent video address to Agriculture Department employees, Perdue warned that sharp cutbacks were in the offing and that the agency would have to learn to do more with fewer resources.
“There’s no sugar-coating what we will face,” he said. “The USDA will likely see a significant reduction in funding by the time this process is complete.”
“This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” he added, “as the president promised before his election that he would realign government spending, attempt to eliminate duplication or redundancy, and see that all government agencies are efficiently delivering service to our customers – the taxpayers of America.”