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Congressman Steve Russell

Representing the 5th District of Oklahoma

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USDA finding ways to waste other people's money

January 26, 2018
In The News

GOVERNMENT officials seldom appear bothered by throwing taxpayer money down a hole. That's not a new observation, but its validity is reinforced by Rep. Steve Russell's latest “Waste Watch” report.

Russell, R-Choctaw, highlights dubious government spending several times each year and his latest report focuses on federal Farm Bill abuses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. But the agency's inspector general has concluded the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service “lacks procedures for oversight and enforcement activities related to retailer fraud.”

Thus, Russell's report notes, $5.3 million has been wasted “because businesses that had been permanently ineligible from the program were still able to receive SNAP benefits.” The agency also failed to collect $6.7 million in fees.

In just one instance, “two brothers in Pennsylvania were giving control of their companies to each other every time one of them was disqualified. FNS never caught these transfers, but investigators found 51 cases where this happened.”

Furthermore, 568 store owners “were found to have continued participating in SNAP at new locations when their other businesses were disqualified. Investigators discovered that FNS was missing basic oversight duties such as performing criminal background checks before allowing retailers to participate in SNAP.”

Gosh, how could that go wrong?

The federal Farm Bill has long included an initiative for beginning farmers. A 2015 audit found the program spent approximately $3.9 billion in 2012 and 2013. But Office of Inspector General investigators concluded the USDA “can neither ensure that the $3.9 billion of beginning farmer assistance in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 has achieved effective and measurable outcomes nor determine if three decades of beginning farmers assistance has resulted in sustainable farming operations.”

Russell's report notes the audit found “a major obstacle in measuring the success of beginning farmers' assistance is the department's lack of a standard definition of ‘beginning farmer.'”

The USDA also administers a Specialty Crop Block Grant Program created to “enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops.” The program spends about $60 million each year.

The problem is that agency officials rarely see a crop they don't think is special. The program subsidizes more than 300 plants and crops. The list of “special” crops includes things like apples, peaches, pears, strawberries, blueberries, cashews, tomatoes, beets, beans, and peas. Yet quinoa, for some reason, is not considered a “special” crop.

Specialty crops are defined in law as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.” The USDA admits this definition, “although more exact than previous legal definitions, leaves a certain amount of latitude in interpretation.” No kidding.

It appears federal officials think every farmer is a “beginning” farmer raising a “specialty” crop deserving multiple forms of taxpayer subsidy, and that criminal activity isn't necessarily a reason to deny someone participation in federal programs.

No private business would ever be so careless. But then, private business owners are spending their own money.