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Chairwoman Jahana Hayes Opening Statement at Hearing on Review of the Office of the Inspector General Report on ‘USDA Oversight of Civil Rights Complaints’

WASHINGTON - House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Chairwoman Jahana Hayes delivered the following statement at today's hearing titled "Review of the Office of the Inspector General Report on ‘USDA Oversight of Civil Rights Complaints’"

[As prepared for delivery]

Thank you to the Inspector General, accompanied by the Assistant Inspector General for Audit, for joining us today to provide testimony and answer our questions. I appreciate you taking time out of your schedules to provide us with your expertise.

I look forward to a productive conversation about the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report on the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights’ (OASCR) oversight of the civil rights complaints process.

The mission of OASCR is ‘to provide leadership and direction for the fair and equitable treatment of all USDA customers and employees while ensuring the enforcement of civil rights.’

However, as we know, USDA has a long history of race and gender-based discrimination in its role as an administrator of federal programs, an employer, and processor of civil rights complaints. Discriminatory actions against program participants, as well as against its own employees, have resulted in several class action lawsuits and settlements over the years.

While USDA’s civil rights complaints process should provide recourse for employees and program participants who face discrimination in hiring, employment, and program delivery, serious issues have plagued the Department’s complaint processing for more than half a century and undermined its ability to timely and effectively resolve civil rights complaints.

And, while these problems are not new, OIG’s September 2021 report on USDA’s Oversight of Civil Rights Complaints, which reviewed complaints processed between October 2016 and June 2019 had some very concerning findings.

OIG’s findings show that, under the Trump Administration, USDA regressed in terms of the timeliness of its civil rights complaint processing.

Of the complaints OIG sampled, more than 85 percent took longer than 180 days to process. In Fiscal Year 2019, it took 799 days on average – or more than two years – to process complaints.

We are also aware that, at the same time, the Trump Administration was undermining OASCR by requesting massive cuts in its annual budget – by $3.5 million in Fiscal Year 2021 alone, for example – and realigning the office in 2018 to supposedly ‘eliminate redundancies.’

Among other concerning changes, as part of the 2018 reorganization of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Secretary Perdue proposed eliminating OASCR’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights position, with little to no justification, and eliminating the Policy Division within OASCR because it was ‘no longer necessary in an era of decreased regulations.’

Furthermore, the Trump Administration’s budget repeatedly proposed that they would ‘not fill critical vacancies . . . in the program and employment complaint area.’ As a result, between 2016 and 2020, OASCR lost a substantial portion of its workforce.

The OIG report makes clear that the Biden Administration has their work cut out for them in righting the ship on civil rights at USDA, both because of USDA’s historic struggle to appropriately process and adjudicate civil rights complaints, and because of the actions of the prior Administration.

I am hopeful that today’s hearing will help us better understand OIG’s findings and recommendations and the decades of issues that have plagued civil rights complaint processing at USDA.

Further, I am hopeful that this hearing helps us come together around productive solutions to ensure that this process works and that OASCR has the staffing and support necessary to meet its mission.

Thank you again to our members and to OIG for joining us today. I look forward to today’s conversation.

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