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Vilsack Tells House Ag Committee That Furloughs Will Happen

Monday, March 11, 2013

(American Meat Institute)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the House Agriculture Committee last week for three hours and said that under sequestration, he must cut funds from all accounts equally, and that this action likely will require inspector furloughs for "about 11 days" to achieve the $50 million sequester reduction from the agency's $1 billion annual appropriation. Vilsack said that required 30-day notices were being sent to inspectors last week as part of the agreement with the inspectors' union.
Given the limited time remaining in the fiscal year, Vilsack said the Department may have to cut 10 to 12 percent of the remaining budget to achieve the required reduction.  "I have to be truthful that based on the way this sequester is structured, it will impact food inspection," Vilsack said. In the face of follow-ups from Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) about the need to exercise available flexibility, Vilsack called the process complicated, and said the union notification process may delay furloughs for months.
When asked why FSIS inspectors have been defined as "essential" employees that continue to perform their duties during previous government shutdowns are not equally as essential in this budget sequestration, the Secretary said that the two situations are different: in a government shutdown, there's an expectation of resolution and renewed appropriations to reimburse inspectors retroactively; in a sequester there are only mandated across-the-board budget reductions. 
Unsatisfied with the answers he received during the hearing, Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) released a comment following the hearing saying, "Committee members have heard concerns from their constituents that the Secretary's recent statements about the interruption of production have affected prices, spooked financial markets and alarmed buyers and sellers in the retail and food service community. Today's hearing made clear that there are still unanswered questions about how the process will unfold."
Meanwhile, AMI continued to argue that the Secretary has flexibility in executing the sequester.  Notably, when USDA headquarters closed last week due to a snowstorm, plants were able to continue operating, which demonstrates that it is possible to run an inspection system even with headquarters closed.

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