Sequestration cuts $2 billion from USDA

Vilsack

Vilsack will give employees 30 days notice before furloughs

By JERRY HAGSTROM

For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON -- USDA employees ranging from meat inspectors to Farm Service Agency employees would be furloughed under the cutback in government spending that is scheduled to go into effect March 1, but it is still possible that Congress will soften the effects.

The sequestration -- across-the-board cuts in government spending -- will occur under the 2011 Budget Control Act, one of the many bills Congress has passed to try to reduce the federal deficit.

Both the Obama administration and congressional leaders expect Congress to come up with a different bill that would fine-tune the cuts, but no bill has yet emerged.

In the meantime, USDA expects to cut $2 billion in spending between March and September.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that every meat inspector would be furloughed 15 days, which would in turn cause meat companies to lay off employees and the meat supply to decrease.

The meat industry has said Vilsack should declare the meat inspectors to be "essential workers," which would mean they would stay on the job.

USDA has done that during past shutdowns, but Vilsack said the sequestration is too big to avoid furloughs for the inspectors.

In a Feb. 5 letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Vilsack also said 600,000 low-income women and babies would lose WIC benefits, Farm Service Agency employees who process farm program applications would be furloughed, the budget for U.S. Forest Service firefighting would be cut below expected levels and 670 of 19,000 public recreation sites would be closed.

But Vilsack has said he will give all USDA employees 30 days notice before starting furloughs. That would mean that sequestration would not really be felt until April 1.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have proposed a deal to avoid sequestration under which Defense Department spending would be reduced, the USDA direct payments program eliminated and revenue raised by the elimination of what Reid and Stabenow call tax "loopholes."

That proposal would also provide $3.5 billion to pay for disaster assistance and energy, small business, rural development, organic and research programs that were not extended when most of the 2008 Farm Bill was extended for a year.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and a dozen commodity groups have opposed the use of the direct payments budget authority for deficit reduction without writing a new farm bill.

"Your proposal would require our farmers to take 10 years of cuts to delay the sequester for only 10 months. That is hard to justify," Farm Bureau and a dozen commodity groups wrote Reid. "We also believe it is simply unfair to assign the burden of cost reductions to only two areas of government spending -- agriculture and defense."

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small, environmentally minded farmers, supported the Reid-Stabenow proposal on the grounds that the direct payments program should be eliminated and that the bill would fund vitally needed programs.

Wholesome Wave, a group that tries to make it cheaper for food stamp beneficiaries to buy fruits and vegetables, also backed it.

Republicans in the House have rejected the Reid-Stabenow proposal and conservative House members want the sequestration cuts to go through.

Congress must also deal with the fact that the continuing resolution it passed last year in the heat of the election season funds the government only through March 27.

Ferd Hoefner, the policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said he believes that Congress will work out a deal to soften sequestration and fund the government through the end of the fiscal year by March 27, which is a few days before Congress leaves town for the Easter holiday.

Sequestration, Hoefner noted, does not get the attention of Congress in the same way as the expiration of the continuing resolution, which would lead to an immediate government shutdown.

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