President Obama called on Congress Friday to give him authority to merge agencies and promised he would start by collapsing six major economic departments into one.
The president wants the type of reorganizational power last held by Ronald Reagan. Obama's so-called consolidation authority would allow him to propose only mergers that promise to save money and shrink government. Congress would be limited to merely an up-or-down vote within 90 days.
But the administration isn't waiting on Congress to pursue a leaner federal government and this week the Agriculture Department announced plans to close hundreds of offices across America.
USDA announced this week plans to shutter 260 facilities across the country, winning praise for cutting costs and concern over food safety.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the goal of the cuts is to save $150 million.
The plan would close 259 offices, labs and other in 46 states and would include cuts at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary: “We have fewer dollars, we have fewer workers, and our workload has increased.”
According to USDA, more than 7,000 employees took early retirement in the past year, but Vilsack does not expect widespread layoffs.
Some position closures will occur in the management and support staff in the Food Safety Inspection Service, but not in inspector or inspection work.
Agricultural Research, Farm Service Agency and Rural Development are other programs expected to be impacted. But Vilsack says belt-tightening at does not mean service to producers will be adversely affected.
Sec. Vilsack: “They should be reassured that our commitment is to strengthen that service. Our hope is that by making tough calls and tough choices we’ll be in a position to avoid furloughs, avoid layoffs that would disrupt service and to continue to invest in technology that would make service over time far more conveniently available to farmers, ranchers and producers.”
Vilsack says he hopes the success of 2011 trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea will help break down other trade barriers this year.
Sec. Vilsack: I think it sets the stage for what barriers currently exist in other Asian countries and use the Korean experience of maybe breaking those barriers down specifically in the beef trade area with China and Japan.
With the battle over the next farm bill looming on the horizon, Vilsack stresses the need for an agricultural safety net, but he says election year politics will not impact USDA’s mission.
Vilsack: “The great thing about USDA has been that we’ve been a bi-partisan, non-political agency and that will continue so long as I’m Secretary. We know we have a responsibility to all the people of the United States regardless of their political affiliation, regardless of the time of year of the time of the campaign. We want to do our job.”
While the $150 million in cuts announced this week are nothing to sneeze at, the reduction works out to about 1-tenth of a 1 percent of USDA’s annual $145 billion budget.