Sec. Vilsack has USDA Sequester Choices to Make

Post-speech USDA press conference shows his further frustration with current budget situation.

Published on: Mar 1, 2013

The post-speech media briefing given by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offers added insight to comments made at whatever event he attended. Friday's media briefing at Commodity Classic in Kissimmee, Fla., started a little differently than in the past.

The Secretary walked up to the podium with no introduction, and after a couple jokes that the sequester had cut out the intros - his first comment was "questions." It was a business conversation about a situation the government has never faced - the sequester is causing more than its fair share of headaches for every part of the government.

"It takes a tremendous amount of time," Vilsack laments.

TOUGH CHOICES: Beginning next week Sec. of Ag Vilsack will have to make the sequester a reality for the agency.
TOUGH CHOICES: Beginning next week Sec. of Ag Vilsack will have to make the sequester a reality for the agency.

His frustration with Congress is evident - as it was during his speech - especially since USDA has been on a cost-cutting crusade since early 2012 with its Blueprint for Stronger Service program. "We saw this train coming and initiated changes," he notes.

The program has saved $700 million so far with office closings and more. "We've cut about 6,800 people, we're strategically sourcing materials, we're consolidating space for more efficient use and reducing the rent we're paying in some places," he explained.

He ran through a long list of other expenditures cut from travel to supplies to conferences "And we did this before anybody asked us or told us to do it," Vilsack adds.

A question raised in a letter from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, concerning savings for food safety inspectors as part of the sequester and how USDA will manage those costs, Vilsack also responded: "Instead of writing letters, Congress should write a bill and get it passed. It's in their hands to solve this," he notes.

Tough choices ahead

The across-the-board nature of the cuts, which requires every department in the government to come through, means making tough choices. And there are limits to how much you can furlough a federal employee - 22 days - and there are notification requirements as well.

In addition, the fact that some payments for programs have been made to some recipients, but others who have applied for programs haven't been paid may even raise "clawback questions."

"It's clear that there are people who have been paid and some that not been paid and the debate is what does the sequester do? Do we claw back, or ding the people that didn't get the money by not paying," Vilsack notes. "I want to impress upon you how crazy this all is and the one last thing to remember it can be resolved and avoided in Congress. This is manmade, not like a drought."

The sequester could impact a range of issues from the Women's Infant and Children program - limiting people who can go on (with a waiting list that could go reach 600,000) and even the Census of Agriculture could be limited. When asked about the Census, Vilsack says: "You're assuming the Census is going to be completed, but sequester has an impact on that as well."

No matter how this ends, USDA and the Federal government have entered a new era. The work that must be done to figure out how to go through sequester is just beginning.