Photo by George Lauby
Sen. Mike Johanns
Congress continues to fire tough questions at the USDA. Sen. Mike Johanns sent a letter Monday to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking why Vilsack did not ask for funding flexibility from congressional appropriators to avoid furloughing crucial employees, such as food safety inspectors.
Sens. Johanns, Deb Fischer and others are critical of the USDA for threatening to lay off food inspectors because of the so-called sequester -- federal budget cuts.
“USDA has had more than a year-and-a-half to prepare for these spending reductions,” Johanns said. “During that time, Sec. Vilsack asked Congress to give USDA funds to the Department of Interior to roundup wild horses and requested additional funds to process the 2012 census of agriculture, among other spending changes. However, no request was made to prioritize keeping food safety inspectors on the job."
Johanns said Americans are tired of the administration playing the blame game.
He said Vilsack and USDA officials have requested more than $100 million worth of funding flexibility for the rest of fiscal year 2013, but not requested more for the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Johanns, Fischer and seven other senators sent Vilsack a letter Feb. 26 asking if the USDA planned to reduce travel, seminars, conferences and other operating expenses, before laying off the inspectors that they are required to provide by law.
Vilsack responded. He said that the USDA had already cut travel costs by more than 42 percent since 2010, and that inspectors would probably have to be furloughed because the majority of Food Safety and Inspection Services funds are spent on salaries and benefits.
Johanns didn't find that answer satisfactory. He said Vilsack should have "anticipated many months ago the need to prioritize food safety inspectors. Yet, you chose not to request funding flexibility to avoid furloughs."
Johanns, a former USDA secretary, listed other special funding requests from Vilsack to Congress, which include:
· Authority to transfer up to $10 million from USDA to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management for rounding up wild horses.
· An additional $19 million for expenses associated with data collection and processing for the 2012 Census of Agriculture.
· The flexibility to transfer funds between Farm Service Agency and Rural Development to supplement the availability of home loans.
· Providing an additional $75 million to the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to ensure benefits are available to all individuals.
"It is not my intention to suggest that any of these priorities are unimportant," Johanns said, "but why would the Administration have failed to submit a similar request in order to prevent the harmful consequences of furloughing food safety inspectors, as outlined in your letter?"