With President Obama last week calling House Speaker John Boehner (R, OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, KY) in hopes of finding an alternative to massive federal spending cuts on March 1, and more and more members of Congress using the sound bite “sequestration cuts should be made with a scalpel not a meat ax,” most in Washington, DC, remain convinced Congress will not act in time to avoid sequestration and its $85 billion in mandatory across-the-board federal spending cuts.
Now the discussion is how to avoid as much fiscal pain as possible. Insiders believe sequestration cuts will commence March 1, to be finally dealt with by Congress just before March 27 when the current continuing resolution keeping the government running at FY2012 levels expires, and when lawmakers are expected to approve another six-month continuing resolution.
The impact on federal departments and agencies could be significant if no deal is reached. Most departments and agencies have told workers they’ll receive at least a 30-day notice of furlough, estimated, depending on the agency or department, to last anywhere from a week to three weeks. If Congress enacts and the president signs a spending deal including a sequestration fix by March 27, then furloughs and program shutdowns would likely be avoided.
Congressional appropriations committees have been seeking formal projections of what sequestration will do to the various departments. USDA this week told Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D, MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, its budget would be reduced by $2 billion in FY2013, after having been reduced $3 billion or 12% since 2010. Federal crop insurance and food stamp programs are protected, the department said.
USDA said it would likely implement 15-day furloughs should sequestration occur, impacting about a third of USDA’s workforce and all nonexempt programs. Inspector furloughs would create a “nationwide shutdown” of meat and poultry plants, the department said, a claim disputed by the American Meat Institute (AMI) which contends there is no requirement in the Budget Control Act removing the Secretary’s discretion to allocate budget cuts across the department.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R, TX), chair of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on general farm commodities and risk management, called the USDA plan to furlough over 6,000 meat inspectors impractical and misguided,” and sent Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack a letter this week demanding detailed information on how USDA will impose sequestration-related spending cuts.
Vilsack told USDA’s Outlook Conference this week the impact of sequestration on the department would have been lessened had Congress passed a comprehensive five-year Farm Bill in 2012.
As to inspector furloughs, Vilsack restated the direct inspector furloughs are mandatory, but that labor contracts with various inspector unions require notifications ranging from 30 days to, in some cases, 120 days before furloughs commence. Other impacts at USDA include more than 600,000 low income women and children would lose nutrition assistance; conservation technical and financial assistance would be cut off to 11,000 farmers; 100 fewer grants totaling about $60 million would not be awarded for research, affecting universities and private enterprise, and “furloughs and other reductions in the number of USDA personnel “would limit the ability to provide program oversight, leading to potentially higher levels of erroneous payments and fraud.”
At the Department of Defense, direct military spending would be exempt, but the cuts would result in the furloughing of about 800,000 civilian workers for up to 22 days. In addition, the national Disaster Relief Fund would be cut by $1 billion. The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) said it would have to furlough some security personnel meaning long waits in line at airports and delayed goods being shipped by air.