The economy continues its slow, steady expansion.
The government announced Friday that unemployment has dropped to its lowest level in two years, as companies continue to add jobs back into the workforce. Other positive signs include healthy consumer spending in December and a rebound in orders to U.S. factories.
Those encouraging reports have spurred equities markets like the Dow steadily higher. Even so, no one seems ready to claim victory, especially with persistent concerns over things like the rising number of personal bankruptcies, corporate malfeasance and the soaring federal budget deficit.
Indeed, President Bush revealed a fiscal 2005 budget this week guaranteed to melt the chips on any calculator. That budget, of course, includes funding for matters of rural interest.
The Agriculture Department would get $83.3 (B) billion dollars. But the spending plan would slice discretionary outlays by more than 8% from the current year to 19-point-one (B) billion dollars -- the biggest cut for a major government agency.
There also are proposed cuts in USDA's Crop Insurance Fund, rural development programs and conservation efforts.
Ann Veneman, Secretary of Agriculture: "As you know, we are in a time of fiscal constraints. The President is proposing a responsible budget."
At a news conference this week, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman defended the plan of her boss.
Ann Veneman, Secretary of Agriculture: "This proposal focuses and maintains resources in order to meet our strategic goals. The 2005 budget focuses and funds key priorities for the USDA. Ensuring a safe and wholesome food supply and safeguard America's homeland."
The USDA budget reflects the president's obvious priority for food security.
The budget would add $60 (M) million dollars for programs targeting mad cow disease. That would include $33 (M) for development of a national animal identification system ... and $17 (M) million to test for mad cow disease at farms and rendering plants.
The budget also would allocate $1 (M) million dollars to investigate the drop in cattle prices that followed the discovery of one case of mad cow. An investigation is underway whether some cattle traders got word of the infected Holstein before the USDA announced it.