By MATTHEW D. ERNST
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The potential budget sequester has both Congressional Democrats and Republicans airing dissatisfaction with possible effects on funding for USDA and other government agencies. Meanwhile, recent statements from farm groups show a continuing difference of opinion for the fate of direct payments.
“The sequester was never intended to happen,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It was designed as a tool to force a grand bargain on reforms to the tax code and reforms to mandatory spending, along with strategic, targeted cuts to reduce spending and get more value for the dollar. ... Those reforms have not happened. Instead, we play the politics of delay, lurching from deadline to deadline.”
Mikulski made those comments earlier this month, before the committee heard testimony from different agencies about sequestration’s possible impacts. She highlighted the much-publicized potential impact of sequestration on food manufacturing inspectors.
A letter from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to her committee noted other impacts upon food and farm programs. He wrote that sequestration could have a $333 million impact on the USDA’s Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program, and he also listed potential impacts to Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency programs, as well as the Forest Service and Rural Housing Service.
“Should a sequestration occur, we would likely need to implement furloughs impacting about a third of our workforce, as well as other actions,” he wrote.
Ag groups weigh in
Last week, some farm groups voiced their opposition to the budget sequester. “While initially we are encouraged that a new $110 billion fiscal policy proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would help put our nation on the long road toward greater fiscal responsibility, the details on how he proposes to do so raise strong concerns,” said Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau Federation president. “It appears the lion’s share of budget reductions will come from cuts to agricultural programs that will create much harm in farm country.”
Agriculture and defense programs would bear the brunt of cuts from the across-the-board spending cuts – or budget sequester – set to occur March 1. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a member of the Appropriations and Agriculture committees, said the package would require the administration and Congress to work together, while also expressing disappointment about how the sequester has progressed.
“I’m disappointed that the Senate Democratic sequester package falls squarely on the backs of our defense and agriculture sectors,” he said. “I understand that this is a political messaging bill, and I think it’s unfair and unfortunate that the entire federal government looks to agriculture and national defense to pay for its debt. ... I look forward to working collaboratively with members of both parties to address the challenges facing the nation.”
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) went further, calling the sequester a food fight with rural America. “Our producers know that we need to transition to more responsive, market-based risk management tools and stand prepared to help play a role in getting our fiscal house in order,” he said. “Only cutting direct payments and ignoring other savings and program interactions in the Senate and House farm bills is anything but balanced.”
Not all farm groups oppose the cuts to direct payments that would come from the sequester.
“We applaud Senator Reid for proposing to fix the fiscally irresponsible and unfair farm bill extension that was slapped together behind closed doors at the end of 2012,” said Ferd Hoefner, National Sustainable Agriculture Com-mittee policy director.
“The package outlined today is a first step toward restoring both a sane fiscal policy and a fair farm bill extension. With that in mind, the sustainable agriculture community calls on House, Senate and White House leaders to work immediately toward a deal that averts or substantially modifies the sequester and corrects the farm bill extension, so that it actually extends the full farm bill while beginning the long-overdue job of reforming subsidies.”
Role of SNAP cuts
Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Coopera-tives, said the sequester ignores budget savings from reforms to the USDA-administrated Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“The larger issue is that the proposal targets only a tiny sliver of the farm bill budget for cuts – over three-quarters of farm bill spending goes towards nutrition programs like SNAP, and these programs will not contribute a single penny towards deficit reduction under this proposal,” he said.
“Less than a year ago, the Senate found savings of $4.5 billion from SNAP when they overwhelmingly passed a new five-year farm bill; I think that farmers have the right to ask their senators why these cuts have gone from acceptable to unacceptable in less than 10 months.”