Why the Department of Agriculture Is Closing Hundreds of Offices

By Marion Nestle

Eliminating 7,000 jobs to save about $150 million every year could be enough to head off further budget cuts sometime down the line.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is closing 259 domestic offices and seven foreign offices "to meet the evolving needs of a 21st-century agricultural economy."

You have to love the government-speak explanation:

When fully implemented, these actions along with other recommended changes will provide efficiencies valued at about $150 million annually -- and eventually more based on future realignment of the workforce -- and will ensure that USDA continues to provide optimal service to the American people within available funding levels.

Huh? What is this about? I can only speculate.

Over the years, as a result of congressional earmarking -- putting government "pork" in the districts of members of House and Senate Agricultural committees -- the USDA's bureaucracy became highly decentralized into hundreds of offices staffed by just a few people throughout the country.

The USDA has wanted to clean this up for years. I'm guessing that the USDA is using congressional budget cutting pressures to do something its leaders have wanted to do for a long time. Are so many of those offices redundant? Some USDA oversight committee thought so.

The closures will not affect meat safety. The USDA still must maintain its legislated inspection responsibilities.

What surprises me is how little money this saves. The USDA's annual budget is $145 billion. If I have this right, this move will get rid of 7,000 jobs and save a mere $150 million, or just one-tenth of one percent of total annual expenditures.

This seems like a lot of trouble to go through for something so relatively small. Maybe USDA Secretary Vilsack thinks this is enough of a sacrifice to head off further budget cuts? In the meantime, expect cries of woe.

Image: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock.

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This post also appears on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/01/why-the-department-of-agriculture-is-closing-hundreds-of-offices/251297/