Politicians who funded this government agency should be sheepish

When Ryan Young was combing the federal registry Friday, he came across a funny rule change regarding the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center.

It wasn’t the new rule that caught his eye and tickled his sense of the absurd, it was the fact that the government had a National Sheep Industry Improvement Center at all.

Young chuckled as he tweeted, “The federal government does national defence, they do security, they run the courts, they do all this important stuff. But the federal government also has a National Sheep Industry Improvement Center. Why is it doing that?”

Young told Rare that he sees weird stuff like this all the time as part of his job as a budget analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The government has a huge number of agricultural related corporate welfare programs,” he said, “Whether it’s for sheep or kale, you name the crop or the animal.”

These farm welfare programs always begin with the best of intentions. The NSIIC was initially set up in 1996 under the national Farm Bill with the rationale that this once glorious, now struggling industry just needed a bit of assistance. Initially it was granted $50 million, money that was to be divided up into grants aimed at helping industry related organizations and funding studies at post secondary institutions.

There’s little doubt the sheep business has declined over the last half century. Back in the 1940s, the U.S. produced a lot of wool and, as a spinoff, a lot of mutton and lamb. The country ranked fifth in the world for wool production. Nowadays, it accounts for less than 1% of global output.

However, the NSIIC appears to be one of those “temporary” government programs that end up never ending. The center was supposed to run for ten years with government support and then be cut loose.

In 2006, as per legislation, the center was privatized. That, however, didn’t go so well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Marketing Service (AMS), which oversaw the NCIIS, doesn’t really explain why, in its blurb on the history of the center, but it’s a safe bet it had something to do with money.

In 2008, the government re-established the NCIIS, this time giving it $10 million a year. That funding was to last until 2012, but this time they didn’t wait for the new deadline to throw in the privatization towel. In December 2011, the NSIIC became a permanent government-funded organization.

At least it appears to be a pretty lean organization. (Note: NCIIS didn’t reply to an interview request before deadline). There’s only one permanent staff member and their office is in Thomaston, Maine. The 12 board members—seven voting and five non-voting—operate out of their residences scattered all over the country, keeping costs down.

The website, consisting of one picture and a few links, is comically bare bones. Though, bearing in mind that the Obamacare website ran up a $1 billion bill, this may have cost millions.

As a bonus, the NSIIC actually promotes not just the sheep business but the American goat industry as well. So it’s not all baaaad in the bang-for-taxpayer-buck department. When Congress will let these industries stand on their own four hooves is whole other question.


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