Washington Report Headlines
· USDA Aiming for More Effective Oversight
· President’s FY 15 Agriculture Budget Request
Federal Employee News
· More Jobs Added Than Projected in Feb
News from the Halls of Congress
USDA Aiming for More Effective Oversight
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General is using an increase in funding provided in fiscal year 2014 to provide more effective oversight of USDA programs, and a proposed modest increase in funding for FY 2015 will allow the office to continue that trend. The USDA's budget request seeks $97 million in funding, up from $90 million in FY 2014. The OIG plans to focus its resources on programs including fraud and abuse within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and crop insurance administration, as well as improving the use of information technology.
SNAP, with an $86 billion budget last year, accounts for 56 percent of the USDA's portfolio, and the OIG devoted more than half of its investigative resources to the program. Efforts included recommendations for USDA to improve screening of retailers participating in SNAP, as well as an initiative to address SNAP fraud on a multi-agency level with state and local authorities.
Budget constraints are resulting in tough choices for program managers as they seek to deliver benefits to those who need them. Over the past eight years, the department has averaged a $12 return for every $1 invested in the OIG's operations. In all, the USDA has requested $23.7 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2015, $938 million less than the department's FY 2014 enacted levels.
President’s FY15 Agriculture Budget Request
President Barack Obama requested a $22.2 billion discretionary budget for the Department of Agriculture, about $1.9 billion less than the fiscal 2014 enacted amount of $24.1 billion. The president's request would also provide $1 billion for emergency wildfire suppression and $295 million from his new Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative.
More than 80 percent of the Agriculture Department's funding comes from mandatory spending for programs such as nutrition assistance, commodity support and crop insurance. Funding for mandatory programs in fiscal 2015 is estimated at $123 billion, an $11 billion decrease from fiscal 2014.
» Farm bill: The five-year farm bill reauthorization (Public Law 113-79) enacted changes to major farm support programs, leaving the president's budget proposal to highlight other programs such as wildfire suppression, agricultural research and rural renewable energy. However, the budget request proposes a substantial decrease in direct spending--about $14 billion over 10 years--for the federal crop insurance program by reducing subsidies to farmers and insurance companies to help finance an additional $56 billion in spending for the Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative. The farm bill, by contrast, expanded the crop insurance program by $5.7 billion over 10 years.
» Nutrition: A $4.6 billion decrease in mandatory spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, is largely consistent with eligibility changes enacted in the farm bill that reduced spending on the program.
The proposal seeks $6.8 billion, $100 million more than provided this year, for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, which is the department's largest discretionary program. The request also supports changing the types of food eligible under WIC to focus on nutritious foods, which could affect producers, processors and grocers.
» More money: The president's request would exceed the discretionary budget caps for agriculture spending through the Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative and by increasing caps for emergency fire activity. The former program would provide $295 million to support in-house research, competitive land-grant programs and a new biosafety research lab. The latter asks for an increased reserve fund to address firefighting in emergency situations.
» Food aid: The fiscal 2015 budget proposes less extensive changes to food aid than the fiscal 2014 request, which focused on local procurement instead of shipping U.S. products overseas, and moving funding to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which administers the program. USDA could instead spend as much as 25 percent of the budget authority for Food for Peace, the largest of the food aid programs, for local procurement during emergencies.
» User fees: $52 million in revenue over 10 years from new user fees for three inspection agencies will be submitted as new legislative proposals: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.
Federal Employee News
More Jobs Added Than Projected in Feb
Employers added more workers than projected in February, indicating the U.S. economy is starting to shake off the effects of the severe winter weather that slowed growth at the start of 2014.
The 175,000 gain in employment followed a 129,000 increase the prior month that was bigger than initially estimated, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The jobless rate rose to 6.7 percent from 6.6 percent as the number of people joining the workforce swamped the quantity of jobs available.
The pickup following the weakest two-month hiring gain in more than a year shows employers remain confident the economic expansion will recover after winter storms slowed consumer spending. Yields on Treasury securities jumped as the report probably also means Federal Reserve policy makers will continue to trim monthly bond purchases aimed at spurring growth.
The weather was less of a detriment overseas. German industrial output rose in January for a third consecutive month as mild temperatures boosted construction activity, another report today showed. While the increase in the jobless rate put the figure further away from the Fed’s threshold of 6.5 percent for raising interest rates, the central bank still faces a challenge in communicating its intentions to investors. Labor-market improvement is one reason why policy makers have dialed back monthly bond buying by $10 billion at each of their past two meetings.
Hiring at professional and business services increased by the most in a year, while payrolls rebounded in education and health services. State and local government agencies, factories and construction firms also added to headcounts last month. The bad weather probably had the biggest impact on the length of the workweek last month. The number of hours worked by all employees dropped to 34.2 on average in February, the least since January 2011. The Labor Department’s survey of households, from which the unemployment rate is calculated, showed almost 6.9 million people worked less than a full week, the most for any February since record-keeping began in 1978. 601,000 Americans weren’t at work because of weather during the survey week, the most for the month since 2010. Bad weather can affect the payroll count if employees didn’t receive compensation for the entire pay period that included the 12th of month.
The week ended Feb. 15 was the coldest second week of February since 2011. The South Atlantic region of the U.S. experienced the most snowfall since 1983 and New England registered the most in 20 years during the period. February’s winter blitz followed the chilliest January in three years.
Wages were another bright spot in today’s report. Hourly earnings for all workers climbed by 9 cents, or 0.4 percent, on average to $24.31 last month, marking the biggest gain since June. Average weekly pay increased to $831.40 from $830.75.