Notice & Comment

USDA Seeks Comment on Expanded Nondiscrimination Policy, by Shannon Allen

The United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) seeks comment on proposed amendments to regulations on “nondiscrimination” in “programs” or “activities” conducted by the USDA.  This notice of proposed rulemaking aims to “clarify the roles and responsibilities” of the USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (“OASCR”) and USDA agencies in “enforcing nondiscrimination” in order to strengthen USDA’s “civil rights compliance.”  Ultimately, the Secretary would like to hold the USDA and its employees “accountable for a nondiscrimination standard equal to or greater than the standard recipients of Federal financial assistance must follow.”

In order to promote the “early resolution of customer complaints,” the amendment requires OASCR to offer Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) services, where appropriate.  In addition, the proposed amendments provide that each USDA agency shall, “for civil rights compliance purposes, collect, maintain, and annually compile data” regarding the “race, ethnicity, and gender of all conducted program applicants and participants by county and State.” Lastly, the USDA proposes to change regulations by expanding “protection from discrimination in programs or activities” performed by the USDA, by including “political beliefs and gender identity.”  The purpose of this part of the amendment is to make “explicit protections against discrimination based on USDA program customers’ political beliefs or gender identity.”

The USDA believes these amendments will “afford several benefits” including, but not limited to:

  • compliance with the requirements of the 2008 Farm Bill through standardized collection of data; 
  • strengthening of the USDA’s agency compliance monitoring with regard to civil rights requirements; 
  • enhancing the USDA’s ability to resolve complaints through the expansion of ADR; 
  • a small net annual savings to the USDA; 
  • improved protection of USDA customers’ rights by ensuring that USDA conducted programs are delivered fairly and consistently; 
  • providing a cost-effective opportunity for early complaint resolution; 
  • enhancing customer experience with the USDA; 
  • aligning regulations with USDA’s civil rights goals; 
  • prohibiting discrimination consistent with the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and the Secretary of Agriculture’s civil rights policy statements by adding the protection of political beliefs; 
  • recognizing USDA program customers’ gender expression, including how USDA program customers act, dress, perceive themselves, or otherwise express their gender; and 
  • ensuring equal treatment of transgender and other gender nonconforming individuals in USDA’s conducted programs and activities.

The USDA invites interested parties to submit comments (referencing Docket No. 0503-AA52) before January 27, 2014 by:

  • Submitting general comments on the proposed amendments to: Anna G. Stroman, Chief, Policy Division, at Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue SW., Washington DC, 20250; or 
  • Submitting comments on the information collection or recordkeeping requirements to:  the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), attention: Desk Officer for Agriculture, Washington, DC 20503.

This post was originally published on the legacy ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice Notice and Comment blog, which merged with the Yale Journal on Regulation Notice and Comment blog in 2015.

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