These are tough economic times. Right now, at kitchen tables across the country, families are struggling to pay bills. The government owes it to the American people to ensure that it is spending their tax dollars wisely and is not wasting valuable resources.
When I agreed to be the Secretary of Agriculture, I promised President Obama I would make the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) more efficient and more responsive to the people we serve. To that end, we are working hard to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse within the department.
According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), between 2003 and 2006, the USDA made nearly $50 million in payments to farmers who weren't eligible to receive them. Unfortunately, the USDA wasn't as attentive as it should have been, and we now have an opportunity to correct this error and provide taxpayers with greater protections and assurances that their dollars are being well spent.
To ensure that farm program payments are only provided to eligible producers under rules established by Congress, the USDA recently announced the first stage in a joint effort with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to combat these fraudulent payments. Under the new agreement, those seeking assistance will have to sign a document giving the IRS permission to verify their eligibility. Just like any program with income eligibility tests, the federal government has a responsibility to verify that only eligible individuals are receiving benefits. The joint USDA-IRS effort is a step toward better and more targeted verification activities that will reduce erroneous payments.
Let me be very clear – this does not mean that the Farm Service Agency will be looking at every producer's tax records. Rather, the Internal Revenue Service will scan its own tax data and notify USDA if producers are not eligible because the IRS believes they have exceeded the income tests in the statute. And we will be actively working to ensure that the privacy of the producer is protected throughout the process.
In addition, it's important to note that our enhanced verification activities will not affect or be noticeable to many producers. It's current practice for USDA to audit a sample of producers each year to verify compliance with eligibility rules. This new initiative will only assist our targeting of these types of activities.
This is just one area in which the USDA is working to eliminate waste and cut costs. One of the first things I did after being confirmed by the Senate two months ago was to ask the staff to look closely at their programs, processes and budgets to identify waste and report to me how they are conserving taxpayer dollars. Already, by reducing unnecessary travel, cutting postage costs by utilizing electronic communications, canceling bad loans and improving the USDA's data center, we are expected to save $24 million.
The men and women who make their living as farmers and ranchers are some of the noblest Americans I know. Their work to provide us with the food we eat is essential to the strength and productivity of our nation. That is why the USDA is so serious about protecting the farm safety net and taking all appropriate actions to reduce and eliminate payments to ineligible individuals.
When the American people elected President Obama, they sent a clear message that they were looking for a more responsible government focused on transparency, accountability, and integrity. The USDA is striving to live up to those expectations, while ensuring that American agriculture and rural communities stay strong through the 21st century and beyond.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tom Vilsack currently serves as Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.