As lawmakers inch toward a Friday deadline and stare a shutdown square in the face, the Department of Agriculture has issued guidance to its employees on what happens if a deal to fund the government can’t be struck.
On Thursday, the House voted 230-197 to approve a measure that would fund the government for another month, but the measure has an uncertain future in the Senate.
Thousands of USDA employees that produce the crop reports, calculate the subsidy payments, run the plant and livestock science laboratories and sweep the halls will be put on “emergency furlough.” Many employees can be designated as “excepted” – doing work that, by law, may continue to be performed during a lapse in appropriations. Some, like political appointees, are exempted from furlough, according to the “Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs” from the Office of Personnel Management.
Despite a case of no appropriated funds for most government operations, USDA will be up and running on a skeleton crew even under a shutdown.
Leadership will be reporting for duty
At the head of the skeleton crew will be USDA Chief Sonny Perdue and his team of political appointees. That would include Deputy Secretary Steve Censky, Perdue’s chief of staff, Heidi Green, undersecretaries and a few others.
While the entire Office of the Secretary (OSEC) team are not automatically exempted, they will be expected to report for duty on the first day of a shutdown to help wind down most USDA operations, according to OSEC’s own emergency shutdown plans.
A complicating factor is that they’ll have to perform those duties without their government-issued cellphones, iPads or other handheld communication unless the devices are being used for the purpose of executing the shutdown or as required by Perdue.
Key USDA Services
Congress has recognized that there are some USDA services that just cannot be interrupted – even for a day – without risking massive damage to the economy. A prime example is meat inspection. Slaughter and meatpacking operations across the country would be forced to shut down without the presence of inspectors from the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
So, shutdown or no shutdown, FSIS inspectors and support personnel will be ensuring that the U.S. commercial supply of beef, pork, poultry and egg products will not grind to a halt. Federal law, in the form of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act won’t allow it.
“In the case of a federal government shutdown FSIS inspectors would continue to conduct inspections, take regulatory enforcement actions when appropriate, and conduct laboratory testing to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of all meat, poultry, and egg products,” a USDA spokeswoman tells Agri-Pulse.
Other key USDA services that will not halt are the inspection and weighing of grains that farmers and exporters depend on to facilitate the shipment of U.S. corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum and other commodities around the world. Most of these services are paid for by user fees, outside the appropriations process, but even some of the work that’s only partially funded by the fees will continue under USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).
“GIPSA’s mission is to facilitate the marketing of cereals, oilseeds, and related agricultural products and protect fair trade practices, financial integrity, and competitive markets for livestock, meat, and poultry for the overall benefit of producers, consumers, and American agriculture,” says a GIPSA shutdown manual. “GIPSA’s programs directly and significantly affect two key sectors of American agriculture – the grain and related commodity and livestock markets.”
Other GIPSA responsibilities, such as investigating grain marketing violations and researching new techniques for inspecting and weighing commodities would come to a halt, and that could create long term disruptions, the agency says.
“The inability to investigate alleged violations could hamper corrective action in the long term,” the agency says. “This could have an immediate impact on members of industry if marketing is disrupted or conducted under inappropriate conditions due to the violations.”
It’s also up to USDA to monitor the quality and safety of imports and a government shutdown could damage international trade.
“One potential impact of a shutdown may be a delay in addressing a discrepancy of an urgent nature, should one arise,” the agency says. “For example, an importer alleges that a cargo is contaminated with a toxic substance. Such a situation could have a severe adverse impact on the image of American agriculture as a supplier of high quality, wholesome products. Such a situation could also disrupt orderly trade if, for example, the vessel was detained, the cargo was unnecessarily destroyed, or the payment was withheld.”
Expect FSA offices to close
If Congress cannot come to an agreement by the end of Friday on a bill to keep the government funded, you can expect Farm Service Agency offices across the country to shut down, a USDA official tells Agri-Pulse.
A shutdown would eventually force the furlough of all but 62 of the nearly 11,000 FSA employees, including field employees, according to FSA’s shutdown plan.
Will government employees be paid for the days they are furloughed? Probably, according to Federal News Radio, which notes that furloughed workers did receive back pay for the 16 days the government remained closed in the shutdown in 2013. Congress would have to approve the back pay and several lawmakers have already have introduced pieces of legislation that would make that happen.
For a comprehensive breakdown of how each USDA agency would handle a government shutdown, click here.
(Spencer Chase contributed to this story)