Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the economic problems facing rural America, focusing on: (1) the factors affecting the economic well-being of rural areas; and (2) whether federal programs efficiently address rural economic problems.
Matter for Congressional Consideration
|Because the current federal approach to providing assistance is generally inefficient in helping rural areas adjust to changing economic conditions, Congress may wish to implement a two-part strategy to improve such assistance. The first step would be to make short-term changes in the way federal assistance is delivered to rural areas. The second step would be to develop and implement a more comprehensive and cohesive federal strategy that would, over the long term, substantially change the current approach.|
|Congress may wish to establish a permanent interagency executive committee, similar to the Economic Policy Council Working Group on Rural Development, to oversee and provide better delivery mechanisms for federal programs and services to rural communities. The committee should be jointly chaired by officials from the Department of Agriculture--the traditional focal point of federal rural development activities--and the Office of Management and Budget--the agency with overall budget authority for all federal programs affecting rural development. Other members would include high-level officials from agencies with an interest and role in rural America. This executive committee should be supported by the National Rural Development Council, which currently has representatives from each of the agencies. The executive committee should report to Congress at least annually on its progress in achieving the short-term improvements and developing a long-term strategy, with recommendations for any necessary legislative changes.|
|As part of the short-term improvements, Congress may wish to direct the executive committee to reconcile, to the extent permitted by law, divergent departmental and agency requirements for similar federal programs to make it less burdensome for rural areas to carry out these requirements: for example, identify reporting requirements for individual programs that may need to be reduced and resolve other impediments to using federal programs pointed out by the State Rural Development Councils, such as the lack of uniform requirements for completing loan and grant applications that are acceptable to all federal agencies.|
|As part of the short-term improvements, Congress may wish to direct the executive committee to recommend to executive agencies those program changes considered necessary to reduce the burden of federal requirements.|
|As part of the short-term improvements, Congress may wish to direct the executive committee to recommend to Congress changes in federal statutes considered necessary to achieve the reduction in unnecessary federal regulations.|
|For long-term improvements, Congress should direct the executive committee to develop a comprehensive, national strategy for federal assistance to rural America. The strategy should recognize that economic realities may dictate a disturbing political reality. Additionally, the strategy should ensure the best use of federal funds and include measurable federal goals for rural America and methods for achieving them. On the basis of these federal goals, the executive committee should identify alternatives that might more efficiently deliver federal assistance to rural areas than the current approach of multiple, narrowly focused programs. These alternatives could include merging or eliminating programs that do not contribute to federal goals.|