In a rare bipartisan move last June, Republicans and Democrats teamed up to scuttle an Agriculture Department proposal that would have shuttered job training centers for at-risk youth across the country — an idea that blindsided lawmakers and seemed to lack much explanation or underlying data.
Rep. Dan Newhouse blasted Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan, which he said would close some of the highest-performing facilities in the popular program, contrary to USDA’s claims. “It appears the administration’s rollout of this proposal was done carelessly — and without the data or the statistics to point to any rhyme or reason as to how the decisions were made,” the Washington Republican said at a committee hearing.
Perdue called off the site closures soon after. But the hasty rollout and bipartisan backlash pointed to a problem that has repeatedly dogged the department: Many of USDA’s recent actions have been marred by missing pieces of critical data, assertions challenged by outside experts or other struggles to demonstrate the reasons for major shifts in federal food and farm policy.
The trend has raised questions from critics about how USDA leaders are making decisions with huge implications for struggling farmers, food stamp recipients and workers in dangerous meatpacking jobs, among other aspects of America’s food system.
“They operate much more on anecdote and ideology than facts and data,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the House Agriculture Committee. “I’ve seen a dramatic shift with this administration using less reliance on data, less interest in talking about data, or completely ignoring it when the facts don’t go their way.”
When USDA rolled out a proposal in July to crack down on eligibility for food stamps, there was a key figure absent from the Trump administration’s formal analysis of the rule: how many low-income kids would lose automatic access to free school meals. Lawmakers hounded USDA officials for months to track down those figures, which turned out to be twice as high as USDA initially indicated.