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Vilsack blames Congress for meat inspector furloughs

Mar. 12, 2013 - 03:06PM   |  
"Hope and prayer isn't going to solve the problem that I have to confront today," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Furloughs will."
"Hope and prayer isn’t going to solve the problem that I have to confront today," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Furloughs will." (File)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack fired back at congressional lawmakers who criticized him for not doing enough to avoid a series of mandatory spending cuts, including the furloughs of meat inspectors expected later this year.

Instead, Vilsack put the blame squarely on congressional lawmakers. He said the spending reductions, known as sequestration, will have a significant impact on agriculture by reducing the amount of money the USDA can loan out to producers, leading to cuts in conservation programs and curtailing exports to the tune of about $500 million.

“The focus has been on can’t we avoid this when Congress knows full well that they structured this sequester in a way that provides no flexibility,” Vilsack said in an interview with Gannett’s Washington Bureau. “I have to do what I have to do because the law is what it is today. If they want to change the law, great. If they want to provide more money, great.”

The cuts at USDA are part of a broader governmentwide spending reduction totaling $85 billion that went into effect on March 1 after Congress and the White House failed to reach a deal to avoid them. The automatic spending cuts will take time to be felt throughout agriculture and the U.S. economy, giving Congress and the White House time to mitigate their impact. Overall, about one-third of USDA’s 100,000 employees may be affected by the furloughs.

But much of the attention at the USDA has been focused on the expected furloughing of meat and poultry inspectors for up to 11-12 days, most likely between July and September. The furloughs would sharply curtail or halt meat inspections, resulting in $10 billion in production losses and more than $400 million in lost wages to employees, according to the USDA. Federal law requires beef, poultry, pork and other meats to contain the USDA’s inspection seal before they are shipped.

Republican lawmakers have been critical of the White House, claiming the administration is trying to incite panic among voters rather than work on a solution.

“The president proposed the sequester more than 18 months ago. That’s a long time for the executive branch to get its ducks in a row to avoid furloughs that impact life, health or safety,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “Some things may not be avoidable, but blaming Congress with the sky-is-falling approach from the administration doesn’t help make the case with the American people.”

Vilsack said the way the sequester is written forbids him from moving money around at the department. For example, he is unable to shift money from rural development programs to avoid cuts in food safety. He noted the spending reductions the USDA has taken since 2009 that prevented the furloughs from being even more severe.

Vilsack said he was not optimistic Congress would act to prevent USDA from implementing its series of cuts, citing the inability of lawmakers to pass a farm bill last year or avoid the sequester in the first place.

“I have to prepare as if nothing is going to change. I can continue to hope and pray that it does, but hope and prayer isn’t going to solve the problem that I have to confront today. Furloughs will,” he said. “It’s the only way I can get to $52 million in savings.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said Vilsack is using the possibility of meat shutdowns to highlight the “most painful ways” to comply with the sequester.

“For now, he’s going to posture himself as if there are going to be shutdowns of meat plants come midsummer,” King said. “But I don’t think [the shutdowns] are going to happen.”

Christopher Doering reports for the Gannett Washington Bureau.

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