Senators seek to keep meat inspectors on the job

Mar 15, 2013

A group of eight Republican senators have co-sponsored an amendment that would prevent federal agencies from furloughing certain essential government employees such as meatsafety inspectors.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, lead sponsor of the amendment, talked about it last Wednesday morning during a meeting with members of the Missouri Farm Bureau who are in town for an annual fly-in.

Members of Congress and the meatpacking industry have been at loggerheads with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over possible furloughs of meat inspectors due to the sequester cuts. The bill goes beyond meat inspectors, but uses a standard set during the 1990’s federal government shutdown to keep federal workers on the job if they perform duties that protect the safety of people or property. It gives department heads the ability to shift money or resources within their agencies to keep those essential employees on the job.

“At this point, this appears to be the kind of flexibility the administration doesn’t want and they would have to explain why they don’t want it,” Blunt said.

Republican senators have written Vilsack, questioning his rationale for claiming the only way to implement sequester cuts is to force furloughs of inspectors later this year.

In a House Appropriations Subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Elizabeth Hagen told lawmakers sequestration would mean 11 days furlough for all Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) employees. That would translate into shutting down inspections of meat, poultry and egg operations during that time, affecting nearly 6,300 establishments. Hagen said furloughs would start in July and would be applied on “non-consecutive days to the maximum extent possible” for the rest of the fiscal year.

A USDA letter last month said the loss of inspector hours could cost the meat industry as much as $10 billion in lost production.

The senators are seeking to attach the amendment to the budget continuing resolution for fiscal year 2013 that is now being debated on the Senate floor. The Senate plan to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year spends just over $1 billion on the FSIS, but USDA indicates it would take another $52.8 million to avoid furloughing meat inspectors at the agency.

Without inspectors, federally-inspected meatpacking plants are effectively idle until the inspectors are back on the job.

“If those meat inspectors don’t show up, nobody can work that day,” Blunt said.

Last Monday, former ag secretary and current U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska sent Vilsack a letter questioning why Vilsack chose not to request some funding flexibility at FSIS to avoid furloughs. Johanns noted Vilsack did so for other agencies at USDA to the tune of about $100 million.

“It is not my intention to suggest that any of these priorities are unimportant, but why would the administration have failed to submit a similar request in order to prevent the harmful consequences of furloughing meat inspectors, as outlined in your letter?” Johanns wrote. “This lack of effort seems to suggest there is no interest in resolving the issue. Instead, it seems that the threat of inspector furloughs is simply part of the administration’s broader messaging efforts to make the sequestration seem as painful as possible.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, had demanded legal justification by USDA for the furloughs. Grassley doesn’t buy the argument that the sequester trumps the Office of Management and Budget directive from several months ago that safety, law-enforcement and health should be priorities to protect in the face of budget cuts. “There is nothing more of a top priority than to keep food safe,” Grassley said Tuesday.

Grassley added, “If they follow the Office of Management and Budget, there isn’t going to be much furloughing and I don’t think there needs to be any.”

The amendment is cosponsored by Blunt, Johanns, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Jim Risch of Idaho and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. — Chris Clayton, DTN