WEEKLY FARM: Delayed Reorganization Will Finally Surface
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Agriculture Department - with 124,000 employees in 42 agencies - will be a target for reorganization when Vice President Al Gore’s task force on government reform reports its findings next month.
This government behemoth, with thousands of offices scattered across the country, has overtaken the Pentagon as a symbol of wasteful, inefficient bureaucracy.
Analysts familiar with the department say the task force’s proposed changes will likely be modest, because there’s so much to tackle, but still significant, because any movement represents progress.
Implementing the plan also may take time. The North American Free Trade Agreement could occupy the congressional agriculture committees, which will have a say on the plan, when Congress returns next month.
″I don’t think that they’re going to be able to deal with this year,″ said John W. Harman, who is in charge of agricultural issues at the General Accounting Office. The congressional watchdog agency, which has done more than 30 studies of department management and functions since 1989, has fueled the push for reform.
Steve Kinsella, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy’s spokesman, said Espy has a plan to reorganize the Washington headquarters, with more work to be done on it this week. The plan calls for a Farm Service Agency that combines functions of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Soil Conservation Service and Farmers Home Administration.
Those agencies have the most direct contact with farmers, helping them with loans, farm programs and conservation. The agencies and the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. have a network of 7,407 offices in 3,700 locations, many where little or no farming takes place.
Espy also has a rough plan for reorganizing field offices. And in a speech earlier this month, he said he would like to reduce the number of USDA agencies from 42 to 30.
Although Espy said in the same speech that ″nothing is sacrosanct″ and ″everything is on the chopping block,″ at least one agency appears to be spared. He said the Rural Electrification Administration will remain, with some added responsibilities for helping develop rural water and sewer systems.
The essential Espy plan could resemble what Edward Madigan offered in January at the end of his term. His plan focused on closing field offices and putting many under one roof.
Espy kept Mike Neruda, who directed the joint project by the department and the Office of Management and Budget to find which offices should be closed or moved, on the job for six months after Madigan left. And even after Espy put the Madigan plan on hold, he told state Food and Agriculture Councils to go ahead with Madigan’s request to draw up plans for closing 1,191 field offices. Madigan also called for reducing the number of agencies to 29.
Charles F. Bingman, a former specialist on government reorganization at the Office of Management and Budget, says creating the farm service agency and reorganizing field offices would be significant and doable.
″It addresses what has been the real source of attack on the department, which is the obsolete, unwarranted magnitude of the field establishment,″ said Bingman, a professor at Washington’s George Washington University and a consultant to the GAO.
He said having the vice president announce the plan would give ″visible political cover″ for Congress and the department to close field offices and take other, bolder steps.
The political pressure against reorganization comes from local communities that lose the offices and from departmental employees, he said.
But the reorganization plan will have only a ″modest″ impact on government spending and payrolls, said Bob Bergland, agriculture secretary under President Carter.
″The benefit will be as much political as monetary,″ he said. ″The appearance of doing things counts for a lot in this town. Whether much is done or not is another matter.″
Bergland, Bingman and Harman agree that the department needs to look deep inside and deal with mundane bureaucratic problems like computers, financial controls and personnel.
Just as important, Congress will have to simplify farm programs that create the need for so many employees.
″If you’re worried that what you don’t want is a big debate on programs and money, what you do is buy into the debate over organization and management,″ Bingman said.