Vilsack outlines potential sequester impacts on USDA

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

ORLANDO, Fla., March 1, 2013- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack bemoaned the potential budget cuts to each mission area of the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a result of the sequester that enacts today. “What is happening in Washington is no one's listening to you,” he told corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum producers during the 2013 Commodity Classic in Orlando, Florida, on Friday.

“Instead of writing letters it would be helpful if Congress put together a bill and got it passed,” he said, regarding a plan to avoid sequester. “I'm trying to impress upon you how crazy this all is, and it can be resolved and avoided. All these problems are man-made, it's not like a drought.”

While lawmakers failed to pass a package to avert sequestration, many Republicans point to the White House as originally proposing the plan to set a deadline for $85 billion in across-the-board spending reductions.

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According to a notice from House Speaker John Boehner's, R-Ohio, office,  the speaker met with President Barack Obama this morning “to press the president and Leader Reid to produce a plan to replace the sequester that can actually pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.”

Boehner said he intends to move legislation through the House next week to keep the government running regardless of how and when the sequester is resolved. “The president and leaders agreed legislation should be enacted this month to prevent a government shutdown while we continue to work on a solution to replace the president's sequester,” according to Boehner's notice.

On March 27, the fiscal 2013 continuing appropriations resolution expires and a new spending bill will be needed to keep the government from shutting down.

If sequester is enacted, Vilsack said he would not have the discretion to determine how the cuts are applied within USDA. Furloughs of meat inspectors within the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) are of particular concern.

“It's not as if, in the inspection area in particular, we can take money from some other mission area. We cannot do that,” he explained. He noted that 87 percent of the food safety budget includes employing inspectors, while five percent constitutes operating expenses and the remainder goes toward testing and analysis. 

“The law basically limits the amount of furlough to one individual to 22 days,” Vilsack said. “So you could furlough everyone else other than inspectors for 22 days and you'd still have to furlough inspectors.”

“Congress could prevent this by passing a budget and doing their job,” he repeated several times during his appearance in Florida.

However, a statement from House Agriculture Committee member Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said, “Saying no to the president's tax hikes does not have to result in drastic cuts to essential services, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plan to furlough Food Safety and Inspection Service meat inspectors.”

Both Conaway and Vilsack agree that furloughing federal meat inspectors would damage the availability of American meat products and increase prices. However, Conaway said “essential services should not be threatened to make a political point,” while Vilsack claimed he will not have a wide range of choice in how to implement the spending reductions.

Vilsack noted that the timelines for implementing spending reductions will be different for every USDA mission area. Among the potential consequences, he said the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program will move participants to a waiting that could grow to 600,000 people.

Although the immediacy of an impact as a result of the budget reductions is unknown, Vilsack said, “Over period of several months you'll see the impact of it.”

He also said $35 million less in credit would be available to farmers under sequester. 

“I can't tell you how complicated this process is and I can't tell you how much time it has taken to figure all these intricacies out and how to implement them,” he said. However, he noted that direct payments extended under the 2008 Farm Bill will still be available to producers this year.

“At USDA we are fully prepared to operate the program,” he said, noting that anything Congress does to remove direct payments in a sequester plan or a five-year farm bill will be directed to future years, not this year. “You can't change the game in the middle of the game.”

Vilsack did recognize that the budget pressures “are not all negative.”

“The whole budget issue has forced us to really think about what we do and how we do it.” He said USDA saved $700 million since 2009 in attempts to utilize taxpayer dollars more efficiently.

Before Vilsack spoke to the growers at Commodity Classic today, each president of the American Soybean Association (ASA), National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and National Sorghum Producers (NSP) made an interview appearance on stage.

NCGA President Pam Johnson said inaction from legislators is impacting the country in major ways, including with the failure to pass a five-year farm bill.

"Everyone out there as an American and as a farmer needs to call their representatives in Congress,” she said. “They need to say that we are mad as hell. We are sick of people pointing fingers and assigning blame.”


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