A shutdown of the federal government would put many of USDA's critical services at risk, including nutrition assistance, marketing and housing loans, and the ability to provide technical assistance to Congress as it works on writing the farm bill, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

During Monday's White House press briefing, Vilsack said that as ag secretary during the 2013 shutdown, he saw firsthand the “needless challenges and disruption that it caused.”

An estimated 50,000 USDA employees would be furloughed if the government shuts down, impacting every county in the country, as Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rural Development and Agricultural Research Service offices would have to close. 

The ongoing federal milk marketing order hearing that started Aug. 23 would also be forced to recess during a government shutdown.

“There are real impacts to real people on a daily basis when Congress and House Republicans don’t do their job,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack criticized the House Republican effort to “recklessly steer our government towards a preventable shutdown” and said the debt ceiling deal reached earlier this summer should have avoided the current standoff.  

“What drives people crazy outside of Washington is when a deal is not a deal, and when the work that you’re supposed to do doesn’t get done and doesn’t get done on time,” Vilsack said.

The most concerning impact, Vilsack said, would be on the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program, which funds nutrition for 7 million pregnant and new mothers and young children. “If we have a shutdown, WIC shuts down,” Vilsack warned. The White House also released a state-by-state breakdown of those who could be impacted by halting WIC funding. 

Unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which has authorization to carry it through the month of October, Vilsack said WIC funding could dry up in some states in a matter of days while other states may find a way to extend the program for a few weeks.

“We have a contingency fund at USDA that might continue [WIC] for a day or two. Some states may have leftover WIC benefits that have not been spent which would extend it for a week or so in that state. But the vast majority of WIC participants would see an immediate reduction or elimination of those benefits,” Vilsack said.

Kate Franken, board chair of the National WIC Association, said in a statement that the association is strongly urging Congress to reach a deal that avoids a shutdown.

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“Without the urgent investment of additional funds, state WIC offices could soon be forced to consider waiting lists for prospective participants -- a drastic step not seen in nearly 30 years,” Franken said. “We simply cannot cross that line. Congress must live up to its responsibility to all those who depend on the program, providing sufficient funding in a continuing resolution to ensure no one is turned away from WIC in the short term and full funding in a year-end spending package to support WIC’s critical mission moving forward.”

The House ag  spending bill awaiting floor consideration does not include additional funding for WIC and also cuts the fruit and vegetable benefit for WIC participants.

Vilsack said Republicans have called for a continuing resolution that is “carrying forward the extreme cuts” that were already proposed in the House Appropriations Committee. “At the time I said the budget was pathetic, it was punitive, and it was petty. And I would say that also continues to be the case,” he said of current CR proposals.  

Vilsack said meat inspectors will continue to be on the job if a shutdown occurs, but if there’s a circumstance which requires lab analysis, USDA labs would be closed. “That may impact and affect our ability to detect animal diseases as quickly as we need to, which in turn could affect the supply of food,” Vilsack said.

The secretary also noted that USDA staff who provide legislative technical assistance to those working on the farm bill will also not be available during a shutdown.

“Fortunately, the shutdown does not impact and affect crop insurance. But a failure to extend the farm bill or get a farm bill done could, which is why we don’t want a shutdown so they can work on the farm bill to get it done,” he said.

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