DATCP prepares for
effects of sequestration
Wisconsin's agriculture secretary, fresh from a visit to Washington, DC, doesn't believe lawmakers will go back to work on a farm bill until June.
After failing to get a new five-year farm policy bill passed in the last session, lawmakers hastily passed a nine-month extension of the 2008 farm bill on New Year's Day.
Work on a new farm policy bill has taken a back seat to things like debt ceiling and sequestration - the automatic $85 billion cuts that are scheduled to take place in federal programs on March 1.
After visiting with members of the House Agriculture committee and their staffers, Ben Brancel finds that "most Congressional members don't connect the farm bill with food" even though nutrition and farm support programs are rolled into one big package.
While in the nation's capital, Brancel met with House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lukas (R-OK) and with staffers from the office of the committee's ranking member, Collin Peterson (D-MN).
Brancel's assessment is that most members of Congress seem to realize that food stamp programs translate into votes and Lukas said he agreed with that assessment, but there seems to be a disconnect in the minds of lawmakers between farm programs and the ability of U.S. consumers to have an abundant and affordable food supply, he said.
"I take exception to a "Washington Post" article that said 'food is not a problem in the United States'," Brancel said.
And while record-high farm income is a political football that gets kicked around the capitol, that's not a given either after last year's drought, says Brancel. "It is up for some and not for others. One farmer didn't have to deal with the drought very much and others were devastated by it."
Many lawmakers he talked to seemed to have the impression that anyone who is involved in farming is turning to gold, which just isn't true, the secretary said.
One of the things that changed on the Senate Agriculture committee is that the ranking minority member Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) was removed from that position of leadership and was replaced by Sen. Thad Cochrane (R-MS), a member from the Deep South where rice and cotton are the primary crops.
Roberts, who helped craft some important farm bill compromises with Chair Debbie Stabbenow (D-MI) last year, was a strong proponent of risk management programs, said Brancel, but it doesn't look like that direction would be one that Cochrane would go in.
Brancel said Chairman Lukas feels lawmakers have an escape route if in fact they can't get a farm bill done. Lukas has said the he believes the farm bill we have now isn't so bad and implies it might have to be extended again.
As Congressional representatives try to find a way to either sort through the automatic sequestration cuts, find an alternative to them, or let them go on as they are now written into law, Brancel is preparing for various outcomes.
It will take several months before all of that is sorted out, he said, but in the mean time he has asked his division chiefs and other top officials to work through what would happen to the department in everything from the best to worst scenarios.
"I'm ready for whatever they throw."
Margaret Krome, a member of the policy board for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, noted that there were a number of programs that were lost in the farm bill extension either because they had already expired or they were not included in the nine-month extension passed by Congress.
"There were an awful lot of programs that were left stranded by the extension. Ten of them were pretty important programs for the state of Wisconsin," she said.
Brancel said it isn't clear from his reading of Congressional leadership if they plan to try to pass a new farm bill starting from a clean slate or if they will use the versions that were hammered out last year by the House Agriculture Committee or the Senate.
"They haven't made those kinds of decisions yet.'
Brancel knows that his department won't get more funding than was contained in last year's farm bill proposals in terms of interagency funding.
FEDERAL FUNDS IMPORTANT
Brancel said that what happens with the federal budget - either in the form of a new farm bill or sequestration cuts - is very important for his agency because the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have cooperative grant agreements with DATCP in many areas.
Programs like meat inspections, research grants and invasive species programs are among these cooperative agreements, he said.
If cuts are done across the board it will be very different from dealing with budget cuts that are done strategically. "We're not waiting until the last minute. We are internally starting to prepare."
With sequestration looming every federal employee has been put on notice that there could be furloughs - days or weeks off work without pay. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is looking at all his employees as equal, said Brancel, and he has been evaluating how many hours or offices will need to be closed to accommodate the budget cuts, if they happen.
That means impacts on Food Inspection Services, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Rural Development and Farm Service Agency. Those agencies will all need to look at their operations and determine how to make the cuts.
There might be temporary layoffs in those (and other) agencies, Brancel said. "Those are the kinds of ramifications that have to be looked at."