USDA was originally established in 1862 and raised to cabinet status in 1889. In FY1997 it had an employment level equal to about 113,000 staff years, working in some 30 separate agencies, carrying out program activities valued at $84 billion, with net federal budgetary outlays of $57 billion. Forestry, natural resource, and farm activities utilized 58% of the staff time. However, about 70% of USDA expenditures went to domestic food assistance programs. Over 90% of the staff are located in local, state, and regional field offices away from the Washington, DC, headquarters. Approximately three-fourths of USDA spending is classified as mandatory spending, which by definition is not constrained by the annual appropriations process. Eligibility for mandatory programs is written into law; any individual or entity that meets the eligibility requirements is entitled to a payment as authorized by the law. The vast majority of mandatory spending is in the Food Stamp Program and certain other food and nutrition programs, the farm commodity programs, the crop insurance program, and the Conservation Reserve Program. The other roughly 25% of USDA budget is classified as discretionary and is subject to annual appropriations, including rural development, agricultural research and education, agricultural credit, international food aid, food marketing and inspection, forestry, and certain nutrition programs. All USDA discretionary programs are funded through an annual Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (except the Forest Service is funded through the Department of Interior appropriations act). Annual appropriations are made to the food stamp and other mandatory nutrition programs based on estimated spending needs. However, supplemental appropriations are generally made if and when these estimates fall short of required spending. An annual appropriation is made to the Commodity Credit Corporation, which funds the commodity programs and the Conservation Reserve Program, in order to cover its past net realized losses. Most, but not all, USDA programs are under the congressional authorizing jurisdiction of the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
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