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Chair Fudge Opening Statement at Hearing to Review the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights

Washington, November 19, 2019
Chair Fudge Opening Statement at Hearing to Review the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights

WASHINGTON- House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Chair Marcia Fudge of Ohio delivered the following statement at today's subcommittee hearing to review the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights:

[As Prepared for Delivery]

"Good afternoon and thank you for joining us today.   

"The purpose of today’s hearing is to ensure the Department of Agriculture functions equally for everyone it serves and employs, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or any other protected class.

"It’s no secret that USDA has had a controversial history on civil rights.  Stories of inconsistent access to USDA programs for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and unfair treatment of minority, women and disabled employees at the Department no longer wait in the shadows to be discovered. 

"The Department has committed its wrongs under Democratic and Republican Administrations alike, and we can’t move to a place of progress on the issue of civil rights without acknowledging that dual responsibility as a key factor in how we got here. 

"Civil rights—the equal treatment of everyone in the building and outside of it—is fundamentally bigger than the blue-red lens we see things through these days. It is incumbent on all of us to make sure past wrongs are righted. Furthermore, the emergence of recent stories from current and former staff within the Office of Civil Rights gives us reason to dig deeper into your leadership and similar actions and patterns from USDA in the past. 

"To do that, USDA must continue to build on the framework designed by the Obama Administration, under then-Secretary Vilsack to address Department-wide, systemic discrimination.  

"That is the only way USDA can begin to make real and fundamental changes in its approach to ensuring fair and equal treatment of minorities, women and protected-classes both internal and external to the Department. We’ve seen the Department pay millions in settlements to black farmers and employees as part of class-action suits.  And, while this represents a much-needed closing of a chapter, it is one chapter in a saga of wrongdoings.  

"It does nothing to address the root cause of the disease. The responsibility now starts and ends with you. 

"Ms. Earp, in preparation for today’s hearing, subcommittee staff contacted USDA on November 12, to request information on the number of vacancies in your office over the last 4 years. Staff also requested details on any management inquiries or reports initiated by employees during your current tenure.

"To date, we have yet to receive the information we asked for. The most recent email response from USDA, received at 8:40 a.m. this morning, lacked sufficient detail and failed to address the subcommittee’s initial inquiry. I can only assume the decision to provide such a response, on the morning of today’s hearing, is intentional.  

"However, what we do know from the information you shared with my office, is there have been significant declines in the number of employees in the Office of Civil Rights from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2019. There are also inconsistencies in the number of EEO complaints Department-wide.  The figures your office shared show out of over 300 complaints filed by employees, across 10 agencies in fiscal year 2019, there were only 2 findings of wrongdoing.

"Given USDA’s very recent history, how is this possible?  

"The lack of findings raises serious questions about the EEO process within your office.  Even more troubling is your reported history of a lack of EEO findings at your previous places of employment.

"Ms. Earp, the Secretary often says USDA’s mission is to “do right and feed everyone. Your charge, Ms. Earp, is to make sure the Department doesn’t just feed everyone, it must also do right by everyone—employees and stakeholders alike. While this is not a confirmation hearing, we are here to make sure that you fulfil that purpose, and to make sure that USDA is better off with you being there. That’s the job you were sent there to do. Similarly, it’s my responsibility to hold you accountable in that work. That’s the job I was sent here to do, and I intend to do it." 

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