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Published March 08, 2011, 09:45 AM

Committee presses Vilsack on proposed cuts

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came under pressure from the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee March 1 to be more specific about the impact that proposed Republican budget cuts and a possible government shutdown would have on USDA’s food safety inspections and what the loss of earmarks will mean for agricultural research.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came under pressure from the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee March 1 to be more specific about the impact that proposed Republican budget cuts and a possible government shutdown would have on USDA’s food safety inspections and what the loss of earmarks will mean for agricultural research.

Under direction from the White House, Vilsack has been upbeat about Congress reaching agreement on the budget to avoid a shutdown, and he took that position at a recent House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing.

“We start with the proposition that you are going to get this worked out,” Vilsack told the committee.

But House Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks, D-Wash., told Vilsack he fears the proposed cuts would require furloughs of federal meat inspectors employed by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the closure of slaughter plants that cannot send food into the marketplace if it does not have the USDA seal of approval.

Vilsack replied that because the food safety budget “is predominantly personnel,” any quick action indeed would affect employees.

Vilsack said that as a governor, he learned if there are budget cuts, the executive branch needs time to put them in place.

“We hope there will be no shutdown,” Vilsack said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who was the chairman of the subcommittee when Democrats were in the majority, told Vilsack, “We can’t just hope for the best that will come out of this process. How many inspectors would have to be furloughed? How many chickens destroyed? What is in place to assure us we do not want another inspection failure?”

Vilsack did not directly answer DeLauro’s questions, but again said USDA would need time to adjust to any budget cuts.

DeLauro added that if the FSIS budget is cut by $88 million, apparently the amount that would be cut by H.R. 1, the House-passed continuing resolution that would fund the government for the rest of the year, the cuts would affect the states of members of the subcommittee. DeLauro said that 15 plants would be closed in Georgia, the home state of House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, a Republican, and that 44 plants would be closed in the home state of another subcommittee member, Tom Latham, who also is a Republican.

DeLauro noted that the cut also would affect the amount of money USDA sends to the states to support inspection in state-controlled meat plants. Wyoming, the home state of Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican new to the committee, has no federally inspected meat plant but has 22 plants that rely on federal money, DeLauro said.

Presssed to make further comments on what would happen if the federal government shuts down, Vilsack said USDA has a contingency plan established.

Vilsack said that USDA could not rely on the experience of federal agencies during the last government shutdown, in 1995, because the agriculture appropriations bill already had passed and USDA did not shut down.

Vilsack said he would rely on the Anti-Deficiency Act, which orders federal agencies under such circumstances to first take into consideration “people who could get hurt”— both government employees and the general public. Vilsack said the decision about what operations and personnel would be considered essential is complicated by questions such as the need to feed animals in federal research facilities and whether someone should be on duty to accept payments on federal loans.

Most of the earmarks in past agriculture appropriations bills have been for agricultural research projects and facilities in members’ congressional districts, and Vilsack said he would react to the congressional ban on earmarks by prioritizing USDA’s research agenda.

Earmarks usually are added onto the other research budget items, and Vilsack said the loss of earmarks has reduced USDA’s research budget. The competitive grants will be $138 million less than President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget, and the budget for biofuels research is $41 million lower, he said.

Asked by Kingston if the cuts came from money that already had been eliminated, Vilsack said, “We were working off budgets that had specific research projects.”

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the committee, questioned the need for USDA to go through the priorities exercise.

“I thought you did that,” Farr said, adding that he thinks facilities in his district already have proven their worth “and now have to start over again” to prove they are valuable. “I don’t like throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Farr said.

Vilsack said “there is no question there is a need for research facilities,” but that they need to be prioritized in a period of budget pressures. His predecessors, Vilsack said, had not prioritized the nation’s agricultural research projects.

Kingston noted that USDA has brought down the error rate in the payment of farm subsidies, but said he is concerned that the error rate in supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP benefits, remained stalled at 4 percent. Kingston acknowledged that the rate is low, but because the number of people on food stamps now is so high (more than 43 million people) the amount of money in question — $3.6 billion — is high.

Vilsack noted that the rate actually is below a goal of a 6 percent error rate, but also said that 40 percent of errors occur because people who qualified for food stamps did not get them while 60 percent of the error rate is from payments to people who should not have gotten them.

Lummis asked Vilsack how many of the people who recently have become beneficiaries of the food stamp program have become eligible. USDA now allows people who qualify for cash welfare benefits to get food stamps without a separate application process.

Vilsack said he thinks the number of beneficiaries has gone up because people have lost their jobs or now are working part time and therefore are making less money and are eligible.

Vilsack said he is concerned about a report that food stamp beneficiaries have been buying bottled water and emptying it to return the bottles for the deposit money. That prompted Kingston to ask if, in the spirit of first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, USDA should track individual food purchases. But Vilsack said that idea appears impractical because grocery stores stock 300,000 items and it is unclear who would police attempts to purchase items that might be banned.

Vilsack added that studies show there is “fundamentally no difference” between the food purchases by food stamp beneficiaries and other grocery store customers.

DeLauro also expressed concerns that the United States may import processed chicken from China using meat from Chinese chickens though China has had cases of avian influenza.

Vilsack replied that a proposed rule would allow processed chicken from China using meat from the United States and other approved countries, but that using Chinese meat would require a more elaborate decision-making process.

Vilsack said Russia has agreed to reopen its market to American poultry, but now is asking questions about specific plants.

Vilsack said he will take a trade trip to Indonesia and Vietnam this spring.