During a House Agriculture Committee hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack continued to warn of the consequences of sequester-mandated government program cuts and to defend the responses from the White House and USDA.

Of particular concern to the lawmakers was the sequester’s impact on food inspections. 

Read the full sequestration order here.

Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the committee, was “disappointed to see the administration’s comments on meat inspection. You have stated that the sequester provisions in the (sequester) will cause you to furlough Food Safety Inspection Service inspectors. Members of this committee have heard from constituents that these statements about the interruption of production have affected prices, caused concern among financial markets, and alarmed buyers and sellers in the retail and food service community.”

Lucas also chided Vilsack following White House backing of the Senate Democrats’ sequester replacement proposal that failed to pass last week. The replacement would, among other things, have done away with direct payments.

“Fortunately, the Senate failed to pass that proposal, which unfairly targeted agriculture,” said Lucas. “They proposed a 50 percent cut to a single title in the farm bill that accounts for six percent of overall agriculture spending and less than one percent of overall federal spending. It was not balanced and not acceptable. I believe the best way to achieve deficit reduction, as it relates to agriculture, is in the context of reauthorizing the farm bill with sustainable and fiscally responsible reforms such as those the committee passed last year.”

Vilsack had tackled the sequester consequences several days earlier during a press conference at the Commodity Classic in Florida. Following a letter from the Senate asking for particulars on how the USDA would handle the cuts, the secretary was adamant that the lawmakers are well aware of the situation and the letter was largely posturing. Even without the sequester, he said, the USDA had already been cutting back under budget constraints.

Senators “know the situation with our budget. They know that the operating budget of the USDA when the sequester goes into effect … is less than it was in 2009. So, we’ve obviously had, over the course of the last several years, increased expenses and we’ve had to be very efficient.”

So what did the USDA do?

“First, we put together over 1,000 USDA employees from all mission areas and said, ‘What can we do better? What can we do less of? What can we do more of that will make us more efficient.’

“They came back with a blueprint: 340 recommendations, some we were already doing so we wanted to continue doing them. There were about 240 new recommendations and we began the process of instituting them.”

Those recommendations “involved taking a look at offices and labs we no longer could afford to keep open. So, last year, we announced roughly 250 labs and offices and locations we’d (shutter). We started a process of early retirements and separation programs that has resulted … in (the USDA) workforce being reduced by around 6,800 workers (about 8 percent of the full-time workforce).”

The USDA also began “strategically sourcing,” where offices, instead of buying necessities on their own, collaborate to offer single contracts for certain activities and supplies. Similarly, the department consolidated space to use buildings more efficiently to reduce rent expenses. Also on the chopping block was USDA personnel travel, supplies and conferences.

The result was a total savings – “a conservative number” claimed Vilsack – of $700 million. “More likely, it’s closer to $1 billion because of the personnel reductions.”

E-mail surfaces

As for USDA food inspections under sequester cuts, “It isn’t as if we can take money from some other mission area and shift it to food safety. We can’t do that. It isn’t as if in the food safety budget we have flexibility.

“Here’s why: 87 percent of the budget (goes to) people who are inspectors and the money that supports those inspectors. Five percent of the budget is operating expense. The balance is for people who work doing the testing, the analyses and backroom stuff.

“The law limits the amount of furloughs we can give to any individual to 22 days. You could furlough everyone other than the inspectors for 22 days and you’d still have to furlough the inspectors. And by furloughing the others, the inspectors wouldn’t be able to fully do their job because they depend, in part, on what the other folks are doing.”

Plus, said Vilsack, the length of a furlough depends on the depth of the fiscal cut and how much time is available to implement it. “If the cut is hypothetically 6 percent, and you have a full year to do it, it’s one thing. But when you only have (6 months for implementation), it’s 12 percent of the remaining money in order to get to the 6 percent annually.”

Also a factor is the notice that must be provided to employees under labor bargaining agreements. “In the inspectors’ agreement there is an oral conference requirement in addition to the notice requirement. That condenses the amount of time we have to affect the savings to meet the goal established by Congress, which it could prevent by passing a budget and doing their job.”

Republican lawmakers were also keen to grill Vilsack over an e-mail they interpreted as adhering to the White House’s desire to make the sequester cuts as onerous as possible. Sent by a regional director of the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, the e-mail addressed the director’s efforts to mitigate cuts -- $263,000 worth -- that would affect the U.S. aquaculture sector.

“During the Management team conference call this morning, I asked if there was any latitude in how the sequestration cuts related to aquaculture could be managed (e.g. spread across the Region),” reads the e-mail. The response from higher-ups: “We have gone on record with a notification to Congress and whoever else that APHIS would eliminate assistance to producers in 24 States in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry, unless they provide funding to cover the costs. So, it is our opinion that however you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be.”

Arkansas Rep. Tim Griffin accused the White House of attempting to “intentionally undermine government operations in order to score political points.”

Griffin, unashamed to score his own political points, continued, “This e-mail confirms what many Americans have suspected: The Obama administration is doing everything they can to make sure their worst predictions come true and to maximize the pain of the sequester cuts for political gain. Instead of cutting waste” Obama, “is hurting workers. President Obama should stop protecting wasteful government spending.” 

After the e-mail surfaced, the USDA said the message relayed to the APHIS regional director was benign. A department statement said several reports, “misrepresented a USDA effort to explain the impacts of budget cuts to an employee in USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

“Here are the facts: Recently, a member of the APHIS field staff suggested to the agency’s budget officers that budget cuts in the APHIS Wildlife Services program could be spread out across 24 states in a particular region in order to avoid furloughs. The budget officers explained that the employee’s suggestion had already been communicated to Congress as part of the (Obama) administration’s FY2013 budget proposal and will be included as part of the sequestration plan. To be clear, the APHIS budget officer explained that USDA is already proposing these steps in order to avoid furloughs. USDA is committed to doing all we can to minimize the impact of sequester our employees and the farmers, ranchers, and rural communities we serve.”