By Ellyn Ferguson
The top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations panel hopes to block furloughs of meat inspectors by designating them as essential workers who must remain on the job despite the budget sequester.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt plans to offer an amendment to the Senate's version of the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution that would keep Agriculture Department meat inspectors working regardless of the across-the-board budget cuts. The Senate's spending package includes $20.5 billion in discretionary funding for the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, an increase from $19.6 billion in fiscal 2012 (PL 112-55). Most department programs would receive the same level of funding as in fiscal 2012, although some would receive small increases.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is responsible for checking meat, poultry and eggs, would receive nearly $1 billion, about the same as it received in fiscal 2012.
Blunt said his amendment would draw on the 1995-96 showdown between President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and a Republican-controlled House and Senate that led to two partial government shutdowns. All non-essential personnel were sent home and all non-essential government services stopped when continuing resolutions expired without an agreement between Clinton and Congress.
"Essentially, what it does is go back to the standard that the government would have used in 1995 where there was a specific criteria where essential employees were not subject to furloughs or the government shutdown," Blunt said Tuesday.
Blunt and other lawmakers from states with livestock and poultry industries or major slaughterhouse operations have pressed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to find an alternative to putting inspectors on unpaid leave. The meat processors would have to close on days when there are no inspectors at their plants.
Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat and chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said Tuesday that his staff was still reviewing the idea. Pryor, whose state is home to meat and poultry processor Tyson Foods, said he was interested in the proposal but wanted to see how it is structured.
Pryor said he would like to know how the inspectors would be paid if they continued working.
"I think it's pretty much a zero sum game. If you help them (inspectors), then you have to figure out where the money will come from. It has to come from somewhere," Pryor said. "Certainly, I want to look at it and see if it is something I can support," he added.
Blunt and other lawmakers say furloughs would disrupt business and cause economic harm to the slaughterhouses and the livestock producers that have animals to send to market.
At a March 5 House Agriculture Committee hearing, Vilsack told the panel he had less flexibility under the sequester than in a situation in which there is an impasse over spending bills. Eventually, he said, a spending issue will be resolved and money will be available to cover the salaries of people who worked during that period. Under the sequester, Vilsack said, the Food Safety and Inspection Service will not be reimbursed for inspectors' work and will end the fiscal year with a smaller budget.
The department issued notices of furloughs last week to the unions that represent the inspectors. Vilsack estimated that the furloughs will start in late summer and run through the fall.
Blunt has said the nation's packing houses cannot function under those conditions. He cited the armed services' decision to furlough civilian workers rather than reduce uniform ranks as an example of leaders who identified their essential workers.
"It's certainly a manageable idea. It's also a manageable idea to have the essential employees treated differently than employees whose daily activities may be important but they are not focused on life, safety or other people's jobs," Blunt said.
In the House, Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., looked ahead to fiscal 2014 and released his plan to cut the deficit by reducing projected spending over the next 10 years by $4.6 trillion. He renewed his call to convert the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps, to a block grant to the states. He also urged the House Agriculture Committee to revisit a proposal to end annual direct payments and to restructure crop insurance subsidies.
Ryan's proposal suggested the committee should be able to generate $31 billion in savings from 2014 through 2023. Ryan said he deferred to the committee in determining the best way to make the changes.
House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas was noncommittal in his response. He cited the five-year farm bill the committee approved last year that included $26.6 billion in 10-year net savings. Almost half of the savings came from reductions to SNAP and a portion of the nearly $5 billion a year in direct payments was shifted to new risk management programs for farmers.
"The House Agriculture Committee remains committed to being a part of the solution in addressing our nation's debt crisis," Lucas said in a statement. "We will consider the suggestions contained in Chairman Ryan's budget, as is customary for the Agriculture Committee to consider a variety of viewpoints when crafting comprehensive legislation."
Ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota dismissed the plan, saying "it's time to get serious."
"If the House Republicans do take the Ryan budget numbers seriously, I don't see how they can be serious about passing long-term farm policy this year," Peterson said in a statement. "If these are the budget priority, priorities for the House majority, agriculture might best be served by again extending the current farm bill."