House Ag members challenge USDA secretary’s assertions on sequester

Mar 15, 2013

A congressional hearing promised to discuss the state of the rural economy, but the vast majority of the hearing was about the state of the sequester and why USDA isn’t doing more to minimize the impacts.

Members of the House Agriculture Committee highlighted their problems with the way USDA would implement budget cuts. In particular, congressmen wanted assurances from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that sequester cuts would not disrupt the safety or markets of the meatpacking industry through furloughing meat inspectors.

The hearing on Capitol Hill was broadcast on the committee’s website.

While most congressmen congratulated Vilsack for staying as agriculture secretary for a second term, the hearing had several contentious moments as congressmen criticized how USDA was implementing budget cuts and who was responsible for those cuts.

House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, told Vilsack that comments about disrupting meat inspections have “caused concern among financial markets, and alarmed buyers and sellers in the retail and food-service community.”

Lawmakers repeatedly questioned why USDA waited until last Friday to begin cuts despite knowing for months that sequester was coming. Vilsack’s repeated response was that sequester was not initiated until the president issued a letter on Friday informing departments to take action.

Lucas cited a Feb. 27 memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget regarding agency responsibilities and protecting their core missions. Lucas asked if that directive included USDA providing food inspections to protect the safety of the food supply.

Vilsack replied that the sequester requires every budget account to be cut. In USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, inspector salaries account for 87 percent of the budget. USDA has six months to implement sequester cuts, meaning they will translate into 10-12 percent of an agency’s remaining budget.

“No matter how you slice it, no matter how you dice it, there is nothing you can do without impacting the frontline inspectors,” Vilsack said.

There isn’t the luxury to transfer money as in the past, Vilsack said. He noted that because of the economy, some meatpacking plants have scaled back hours of operation that may help minimize the effects. Still, USDA also has to work with unions and the contracts they operate under when the department begins furloughing staff.

“So the sequester act trumps the Food Safety Act, which is basically what you are saying,” Lucas said. “Do your union-labor agreements trump the sequester act?” USDA is sending out letters to the union members that furloughs are possible. USDA also has to hold “oral conferences” with any employee who requests them after letters are received. So it could take several months for USDA to furlough meat inspectors.

“So the industry will have some notice of what will happen, which we hope to some extent would reduce the industry disruptions that are going to occur,” Vilsack said.

The first several lawmakers to question Vilsack on Tuesday asked about the meat inspectors. They also wanted to know if Vilsack would consider suggestions on legislation to help with flexibility in implementing the sequester cuts. Vilsack declined to respond to those suggestions, but noted he doesn’t have that flexibility now.

Rep. Steve King, R-IA, specifically wanted to see what Vilsack would like to see written into the continuing resolution on the fiscal year 2013 budget later this month that would avoid cuts to meat inspections. Vilsack said Congress should simply give USDA the money for inspectors, but King said that’s not an option.

Vilsack cited USDA has taken steps over the past four years to cut its discretionary budget by $700 million and reduce its workforce by 8 percent. Rep. Austin Scott, R-GA, challenged those numbers, citing that USDA’s budget is about $65 billion more now than in 2009, mainly due to growth of mandated programs, particularly nutrition programs. Vilsack and Scott got into a heated debate about the truthfulness of budget figures.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-SD, read a leaked email sent Monday from a regional administrator based in North Carolina for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service which implied that USDA leaders were unwilling to be flexible and would rather ensure that producers felt the impact of the cuts. The email specifically dealt with cuts to aquaculture programs.

As the email stated, “During the Management team conference this morning I asked if there was any latitude in how the sequestration cuts related to aquaculture could be managed (e.g. spread across the Region). The question was elevated to APHIS BPAS (Budget and Program Analysis Staff),” the email stated. “The response back was, ‘We have gone on record with a notification to Congress and whoever else that APHIS would eliminate assistance to producers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry, unless they provide funding to cover the costs.”

Then the email adds, “So it is our opinion that however you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be.”

The email was posted on the website of Rep. Tim Griffin, R-AR. Noem asked if it was policy in the department to not use any flexibility in the sequester. Vilsack said he wasn’t familiar with the email and his desire was to be as flexible and reduce the impact as much as possible.

“I wouldn’t say that we have said no to flexibility, but in certain circumstances we have no flexibility,” Vilsack said.

Noem countered that the email appears to advocate the administration’s position to demonstrate the negative impact on government services. — Chris Clayton, DTN