During a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Tuesday (March 5), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack continued to warn of the consequences of sequester-mandated government program cuts and to defend the responses from the White House and USDA.

Of particular concern to the lawmakers was the sequester’s impact on food inspections. 

Read the full sequestration order here.

Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the committee, was “disappointed to see the administration’s comments on meat inspection. You have stated that the sequester provisions in the (sequester) will cause you to furlough Food Safety Inspection Service inspectors. Members of this committee have heard from constituents that these statements about the interruption of production have affected prices, caused concern among financial markets, and alarmed buyers and sellers in the retail and food service community.”

Lucas also chided Vilsack following White House backing of the Senate Democrats’ sequester replacement proposal that failed to pass last week. The replacement would, among other things, have done away with direct payments.

More on the sequester replacement here and here.

“Fortunately, the Senate failed to pass that proposal, which unfairly targeted agriculture,” said Lucas. “They proposed a 50 percent cut to a single title in the farm bill that accounts for six percent of overall agriculture spending and less than one percent of overall federal spending. It was not balanced and not acceptable. I believe the best way to achieve deficit reduction, as it relates to agriculture, is in the context of reauthorizing the farm bill with sustainable and fiscally responsible reforms such as those the committee passed last year.”

Vilsack had tackled the sequester consequences several days earlier during a press conference at the Commodity Classic in Florida. Following a letter from the Senate asking for particulars on how the USDA would handle the cuts, the secretary was adamant that the lawmakers are well aware of the situation and the letter was largely posturing. Even without the sequester, he said, the USDA had already been cutting back under budget constraints.

Senators “know the situation with our budget. They know that the operating budget of the USDA when the sequester goes into effect … is less than it was in 2009. So, we’ve obviously had, over the course of the last several years, increased expenses and we’ve had to be very efficient.”

So what did the USDA do?

“First, we put together over 1,000 USDA employees from all mission areas and said, ‘What can we do better? What can we do less of? What can we do more of that will make us more efficient.’

“They came back with a blueprint: 340 recommendations, some we were already doing so we wanted to continue doing them. There were about 240 new recommendations and we began the process of instituting them.”

Those recommendations “involved taking a look at offices and labs we no longer could afford to keep open. So, last year, we announced roughly 250 labs and offices and locations we’d (shutter). We started a process of early retirements and separation programs that has resulted … in (the USDA) workforce being reduced by around 6,800 workers (about 8 percent of the full-time workforce).”

For more on office shuttering, see here.

The USDA also began “strategically sourcing,” where offices, instead of buying necessities on their own, collaborate to offer single contracts for certain activities and supplies. Similarly, the department consolidated space to use buildings more efficiently to reduce rent expenses. Also on the chopping block was USDA personnel travel, supplies and conferences.

The result was a total savings – “a conservative number” claimed Vilsack – of $700 million. “More likely, it’s closer to $1 billion because of the personnel reductions.”