Legislators Call for Better Oversight of USDA Spending After 2022 Audit Shows Millions in ‘Questioned Costs’

Autumn Spredemann
By Autumn Spredemann
March 10, 2023Politics

Republican and Democrat legislators voiced the need for increased oversight in spending for the U.S. Department of Agriculture during a hearing on March 9.

In response, representatives from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) illustrated the need for more funding to keep pace with a rapidly expanding series of projects under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This was underscored by more than $305 million in “questioned costs or funds to be put to better use,” 275 arrests for criminal use of funding, and nearly $68 million in recoveries and restitution.

And that was from just six months in the fiscal year (FY) 2022.

Inspector General for the USDA, Phyllis K. Fong, said the troubling findings from OIG audits are precisely why her team needs a bigger budget. She indicated the analysis of federal spending needs to happen quickly, making it easier to police funds and catch irregularities.

“With funding streams like these comes the need for oversight to ensure the programs are serving those for whom the assistance is intended,” Fong said, adding that the USDA received “billions and billions and billions” in pandemic relief, infrastructure, and inflation reduction money within a three-year stretch.

And the OIG is struggling to keep up with the workload of auditing dozens of programs. Fong said it’s challenging to provide “effective oversight,” given the accelerated growth of USDA funding.

USDA's Outlook For Florida's Orange Crop This Winter Is Lowest In Decades, Due To Citrus Greening Disease
The orange crop at one of the Peace River Packing Company groves in Fort Meade, Fla., on Feb. 1, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The USDA budget topped out at $218 billion for mandatory and discretionary spending in 2022, with $196 billion on the table for consideration in 2023.

But as the current administration continues pouring money into the USDA, some of it has little to no regulation or oversight. Rep. Andrew Harris (R-Md.) pointed out that President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has zero dollars built into the budget for oversight from the OIG.

But the IRA will pay out $19.5 billion to the USDA over the next five years.

“That’s not the way we should shepherd tax dollars,” Harris said. “These are not our dollars. They are taxpayer dollars.”

Harris also expressed concern that USDA spending has gotten too cavalier since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting the agency has spent billions on program initiatives, but many lacked congressional authorization.

He emphasized that he’s becoming “increasingly concerned” the USDA is “stretching its authorities beyond congressional authorization or intent.”

Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) supported the call for greater oversight in spending by the OIG. He pointed to data from 2018 and 2019 OIG reports as examples of why federal spending must be monitored closely.

An OIG assessment of the Agricultural Trade Promotion Program from 2018 showed the USDA awarded 300 million to applicants who weren’t the best candidates for funding. The auditor’s report also noted a lack of “proper controls” over the program.

In a 2019 Market Facilitation Program assessment, OIG auditors stated producer records often didn’t support the amounts claimed on the applications. The final report estimated that the USDA overpaid 150,313 producers by more than $57 million.

Though despite big budgets, not all that money is making it onto the front lines with America’s farmers.

The insect known as the glassy-winged sharpshooter is a threat to multiple crops in California’s fertile valleys. However, despite increased USDA funding to control this pest through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) says the money isn’t reaching farmers in her district.

“I’m hearing from a lot of farmers that the resources just aren’t there,” Lee said.

Rep. Daniel Newhouse (R-Wash.) also expressed concern over the APHIS program, which he said appears to have little to no control over their programs.

When it comes to dealing with pests on the farm, Newhouse said, “I’m a farmer myself. It’s a constant battle.”

He asked if the OIG could identify what APHIS projects may have fallen “through the cracks,” during the pandemic.

Acting Assistant Inspector General for Audit at the OIG, Steve Rickrode, said collecting the relevant data to audit APHIS has been difficult.

Rickrode indicated APHIS needs more time to streamline its data to cooperate with auditors fully.

“We couldn’t complete some of our audit work,” he said.

From The Epoch Times

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