Harris Remarks at FY24 Budget Hearing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (As Prepared)

Mar 30, 2023

Good morning. I want to thank you all for being here today to discuss the Department of Agriculture’s fiscal year 2024 budget request. Secretary Vilsack, I want to welcome you, and I look forward to hearing more about your priorities for the coming year, as well as having a discussion on other important issues under the jurisdiction of this Subcommittee.

USDA’s fiscal year 2024 budget request totals $24.46 billion, an increase of $2.5 billion, or 11.5%, over last year’s levels. Mr. Secretary, I’m sure it isn’t news to you that the fiscal situation this country is facing is nothing short of dire. Unfortunately, the budget request you’ve put forward is unrealistic and unattainable. We simply cannot afford what you have proposed. I believe we need to have an honest discussion about USDA’s priorities and where our constituents’ hard-earned taxpayer dollars make the greatest impact.

USDA has received over $200 billion through the many supplemental funding packages, including the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. Despite the enormous amounts of resources provided to the Department through Congressional action, you have unilaterally increased SNAP benefits by more than $250 billion through a quick, politically driven update of the Thrifty Food Plan, which is the underlying market basket of foods used to establish SNAP benefit amounts.  

You have treated the Commodity Credit Corporation like a slush fund to advance political priorities not directed by Congress. In 2022, you spent $6.6 billion on programs not authorized in the Farm Bill or other legislation, including $3.5 billion on climate and $1.5 billion on school nutrition programs, which was pushed out after Congress provided the Department specific direction to increase school meal reimbursement rates through the Keep Kids Fed Act - not to spend more funds from the CCC. All of this came on top of the $2.5 billion you spent in 2021 on unauthorized programs.

This reckless unauthorized use of taxpayer dollars deserves scrutiny in today’s hearing and calls into question whether this Administration can be trusted with any discretionary authority under the Corporation’s Charter Act in future fiscal years.

On the regulatory front, I am disappointed that the Department has renewed its Obama-era efforts under the Packers and Stockyards Act to dictate how poultry and livestock producers raise and market their animals. Poultry and livestock market structures are both complex and efficient, and ultimately reward high-performing producers who meet consumer demands. A top-down regulatory approach attempting to fundamentally change these production and marketing practices risks harming growers, processors, and consumers alike, and to drive these important food industries offshore.

I was very interested to see that your budget request includes the hiring of 4,700 new full-time employees. For the past several fiscal years, this Subcommittee has provided record-high funding levels for USDA’s three field agencies – Rural Development, the Farm Service Agency, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And yet, USDA continues to claim to be severely understaffed. I’m interested in how USDA chose to allocate past funding, as well as your plans for these new hires. It seems to me that in this year's proposal you have prioritized and continue to prioritize bloating the bureaucracy – focusing on staffing up in your Washington, D.C. Headquarters – rather than hiring field office staff to serve and support our nation’s producers and deliver USDA’s core mission. This Subcommittee will not prioritize climate change, equity, or green initiatives over mission-critical services.

I remain concerned about this Administration’s focus when it comes to domestic nutrition programs. As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we have an obligation to scrutinize mandatory funding when it goes beyond what Congress has authorized and intended. This USDA has consistently sought to expand eligibility, loosen work requirements, and increase benefits. As COVID waivers and increased benefits expire and the unemployment rate remains, thankfully, at a record low, we would expect to see participation rates declining more rapidly. However, your fiscal year 2024 budget request for SNAP is more than $54 billion over pre-pandemic levels, a staggering 79.9 percent increase. This is something the Subcommittee will be looking at very closely.

Finally, I would like to applaud the Department’s response to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. As the United States faces the worst outbreak in our history, it is critical to continue working to mitigate the spread of the disease and assist those producers whose flocks become infected.

Again, I appreciate you being with us, Mr. Secretary, and I look forward to today’s discussion.  

Ranking Member Bishop, I will now yield to you for any opening remarks you’d like to make.