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used details and jump teams last year. We're going to use some this year. We'll use any means we can, our contracting authority, or overtime, or what-have-you.
I think I was in this room about last April and told those folks, “We're going to improve this thing a year from now.” One gentleman said he had heard that for 5 years and didn't think it was going to happen. So, I hope we told him to write it down. We'd be back in a year. Hopefully, we'll be able to show him marked improvements. We'll use whatever means we can, whatever means are available. But we were short staffed. Unfortunately, some of the legacy FmHA folks told us that it had been years since they had received training. I think training and education, it doesn't matter what field it is, that's an investment. And I think it's one that's really going to pay off for us.
But our consistency and delivery up there, to me, is about as important as anything so hopefully, we're addressing that.
Mr. THORNBERRY. This may be unanswerable. But how much of a county's office workload is farm credit, do you reckon?
Mr. BENNETT. That depends on where you're at. I don't mean that to evade the question.
Mr. THORNBERRY. No, I understand. There's variants that depend on what kind of agriculture you have, obviously.
Mr. BENNETT. There are counties in this area, especially around Lubbock, within 100, 150 mile radius, that they're going to spend a great deal of their time on agriculture credit. I think it's pretty obvious by looking at the number of dollars, the number of people that came over with it, that it is probably the dominant division in FSA. I think that certainly in areas where it's heavy agriculture credit, and I think we submitted, Mr. Chairman, an additional item to our testimony that will give you an idea of the load and whathave-you.
Mr. COMBEST. Right.
Mr. BENNETT. We have some more information that we're going to have direct out of a key to get the counties tied up on our direct and guaranteed loans that you'll see. I think it will go according to what size and how much workload and loans are in that particular county. But in this area, it's very substantial.
Mr. THORNBERRY. Ms. Cooksie, in your overall numbers, Mr. Combest asked you the reduction in delinquencies includes writedowns and so forth. Can you give me an idea how much of the reduction is a result of writing off bad loans? And how much of it is real improvements where the farmers are getting current again?
Ms. COOKSIE. I think we'll probably have to provide that for the record. I'm not sure we have the totals of the breakdown. I'm not sure we have the totals and how much it is here with us. But we can provide that to you.
Mr. THORNBERRY. OK, thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. COMBEST. One of the concerns when farmers are calling my office—I don't know about the other offices represented here, but they express a concern that if they run into a bottleneck somewhere, if they come to our office and we check on it, they're kind of afraid they're going to get put on a blacklist and go to the bottom of the pile and have to start over. Is that fear unfounded?
Mr. BENNETT. It better be.
So, you could tell me with confidence that there is no favoritism in processing applications?
Mr. BENNETT. There better not be. And I really don't think there—I hope there isn't, but I don't blame them necessarily for having that fear. But it better not be happening.
Mr. COMBEST. What are your thoughts as to the future delivery of the farm credit programs? Do you feel that these programs are well to be considered continued under the county elected committee system as we currently have? Or is there thoughts of making a change in the county elected committee system within the Department?
Ms. COOKSIE. I think your first question was, does FSA, the Farm Loan Program need to stay in FSA? Is that what you're saying?
Mr. COMBEST. Right. Well, does it need to stay in FSA as it is under the county committee system, as we operate it today?
Ms. COOKSIE. I think, frankly, under the present county committee system, no. But I think that with some revisions to the county committee system, it could work fine.
Mr. COMBEST. And then I'd like to get your response to that, too.
How would you change it? What concerns do you have now, Ms. Cooksie, about the way that the county committee system operates?
Ms. COOKSIE. Well, keep in mind, for the record, this is my personal opinion. It is not the opinion of the Department.
Mr. COMBEST. Well, I understand that. I appreciate your opinion.
Ms. COOKSIE. My personal opinion is that there's a perception problem more than a reality problem with the county committees out there. One of the perception problems that I've run into—and there is some reality to this-is that there are people who think because now we're moving county executive directors that have loan approval authority, that with the county committee hiring and firing the CED, the county executive director, that they're going to have some direct impact on whether these people are approved for loans or not. Because if they tell the CED to hire or fire somebody, if they don't approve a loan or if they approve a loan and they didn't want them to, that there would be some impact on whether they get their loan or not.
I think there is a lot of perception out there about that. I think in order to take care of that, it would be as simple maybe to think about taking the county committee out of the personnel system and put them in an advisory role for loan eligibility, where they're most needed I think. That's my own personal opinion as one of the places it could go.
Mr. COMBEST. Mr. Bennett, do you have any comments on that?
Mr. BENNETT. I think it depends on where we see the county committee system now. They are not necessarily that involved with loan approval and what-have-you now because it's a line of authority from the State director to the district director to those folks that are dealing with agriculture credit. I can assure you in my visits with county committeemen, if they thought they had loan approval authority, half of them would quit today. After they thought about it tonight, the other half would quit tomorrow because
Ms. COOKSIE. That's right. That's right. I agree with that.
Mr. BENNETT (continuing). These are farmers elected by farmers and they, themselves can not stand anymore liability. I think that's a real concern to them.
Now, I would agree with Carolyn as far as the personnel. We realize we're struggling with some things there on how do we get the approval authority in the total working knowledge of the agriculture credit, in the county office employees, the Federal and nonFederal? And by the way, before I came into this job, my farm had been into an ASCS office like yourself for 20 or 25 years, but I didn't know there was difference, Mr. Stenholm, between Federal and non-Federal until I got in this job. So, I appreciate what you said a while ago.
The Dairy Queen manager, the housewife, and the dentist don't know it, but it's—I think if you keep the county committee away from the loan approval authority, which would certainly take care of some of the conflict of interest and if I was on the county committee myself, I would not want loan approval authority, or to be involved with it. I think that gets into the personnel part because it's a real fear. They're borrowing money themselves and I don't think their banker would want them being liable for a bunch more loans also.
Mr. COMBEST. I have personally struggled with the county committee issue for a lot of years. Having been there, I'm a strong believer in the county committee system because I think it brings a local flavor of people who are out there in the same business. They're going to know the quality of the farmer, how good a job they do. And I like the idea-I have, through, actually, three different farm bills now, looked at, you know, considering the potential expansion of that authority.
And yet, then the other concerns that you were talking about, you know, the county committee mass resignations concerns me as well. You don't want to create a situation among fellow farmers out there that it makes their home a bad place to live and they're constantly getting beat up about the idea. I wish I had had the wisdom to know exactly where that line should be drawn, and I don't. I recognize that county committees have still got to, even though they have some authority to make different decisions—all those decisions are appealable, but they still have to follow the regulations.
Mr. BENNETT. That's right.
Mr. COMBEST. You've got books that come down from Washington, and so they can't go beyond that. They don't have the power or the authority to go beyond that scope. But their input, I think, is invaluable. Their knowledge is invaluable. I have never seen a county committee that does not take that job extremely serious. What they want to know is what do they have to do to make certain they're complying with the law? They recognize their responsibility as decisions they make affecting USDA, affecting taxpayer dollars, and they take it very seriously. I have tremendous regard for county committees.
But I do think that, you know, there are some very valid points that you raise. I would hate to see us do away with the county committee system. Maybe this ought to be looked at as to what role do we want them to play. But I think we would lose a real value that is currently being provided to USDA and to the farmer, which is the most important.
Do you feel that local county supervisors today have the authority that they need, or do they need additional authority in the loan making process?
Mr. BENNETT. Are you asking me?
Mr. BENNETT. I personally think we spend a little too much time re-reviewing the review of the review.
Mr. COMBEST. There's a lot of heads shaking out there behind you, I'll say.
Mr. BENNETT. I hope that we in Texas are working to address that. It was impossible last year during the transfer of functions for seven district directors to run a $2 billion loan portfolio and for they only to have the review authority they had. Right now we have 24 district directors.
Again, I'm going to go back to training and education. The quicker we get those county office employees, Federal, non-Federal, all up to speed and the quicker we can transfer that out to them, the better off we're going to be at the State office, the better off they're going to be at the local level, and the better off the bankers and the producers will be at the local level.
In defense of them though-and I don't want to sound offensive, but I will defend them. I appreciate your taking the responsibility for some of the laws. I've told people before, we don't cook it, but we do have to serve it. Sometimes our employees in the regulations or what-have-you, there's a real fear with our employees that if we don't have that particular i dotted or t crossed, that we could or may lose a job. There have been some that have.
I would like to see, and I know Jimmy Clark and I have talked about it, and have said many times, it's a real radical thought to think about putting common sense in the Federal Government or the regulations or this, that, and the other, but we need to move towards that. I have confidence with the training of our local folks and our district directors and allowing them a little use of some common sense, that they'll make this work. Our employees can.
I think our county committees—I'm like yourself, I'm very committed to the county committee system in an advisory role, especially, and in the interpretation of policy and procedure. I think they play an invaluable role there. I think we have to tap into that. I just hope that we continue to look forward and don't look back and say, “We shouldn't have done this.” When you just give a method a year's experience, or a year's trial, or 2 years and you're going to judge it totally on that, I think we make a mistake. I hope we keep moving forward and never move backward. Because I could promise you and I can take you to counties, to districts real close to here where these are very conscientious people. Our employees are brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and relatives of those producers out there and of those bankers.
So, we are committed. They're working at it and we're focused on it. Wish us luck, but I hope we don't ever look backwards.
Mr. COMBEST. Ms. Cooksie?
Ms. COOKSIE. I agree with Harold Bob, but on, of course, a bigger basis, a nationwide basis. I believe that if nobody understands that, posal that will be coming forward to basically exempt guarantees, I believe, from that requirement.
On the direct side, we're still working on that. We have been working closely with Mr. Bennett and the other SEDs to help them work through some of the problems. Our position is that if someone has not been able to meet the training requirements because there was no program available—and in some states and I think in some areas of Texas, that has been a problem where there just were not providers, vendors as we call them, available that we would certainly not hold that against the person. There have been a few cases that we've had reports of where people just—they signed the training agreement and later refused to participate, thinking that at some point, things would change and the requirement would go away. If we and they both agreed, we intend to hold them to the agreement.
Again, if there were problems and there were not vendors available—and I know from my conversation with Chris Aimen on Mr. Bennett's staff, there were places in Texas where, you know, it just was not possible for someone to get the training that they had agreed to, we certainly plan to be understanding and to work with those folks.
Mr. STENHOLM. Mr. Chairman, I think this is one area that as you consider legislation, that USDA will submit that this is one area where I would hope that you would pay some particular attention to perhaps the need of even changing the law as it was written in 1990. Otherwise, we could very well have some very bad situations of which no one intended. But many times, the best intentions go astray because of the lack of practicality.
Mr. COMBEST. Ms. Cooksie, if I
Mr. COMBEST. Are you intending to address that in your legislative proposals?
Ms. COOKSIE. We're going to address the guarantee program. We had not planned to address the direct program training.
Mr. COMBEST. Well, we certainly—Mr. Stenholm's point is very well taken. Thank you.
Mr. STENHOLM. Ms. Cooksie, has USDA as yet studied the impact of the Agricultural Market Transition Act, otherwise known as Freedom to Farm, as to how this may or may not affect agricultural lending in 2002, or 2000, or 2001, or 2005? Has anyone, as yet, had an opportunity to look at that?
Ms. COOKSIE. I don't think we've done any bona fide studies, no. I honestly don't think we have. If we have, I'm not aware of it, sir.
Mr. STENHOLM. In regard to the FSA, I'm well aware that everyone was not really happy with the concept of an FSA approach or a USDA service center. Having spent a good part of 4 years developing the law and then having it passed, I'm well aware that there were divisions of opinion regarding the advisability, feasibility, practicality thereof. But having believed very strongly in the approach, I have not lost my enthusiasm for making it work. To say that we're disappointed at where we are today, not due to our local employees—that's not where the problem has been. The problem has been at the top. Different levels of the top above the local em