Shutdown: What about the USDA?

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

I checked with the USDA today to see what programs and services will continue to operate if a budget compromise isn’t achieved by Friday night. The agency official I spoke with, who asked that I identify him that way, told me plans are not final, but that “in the event of a government shutdown most USDA activities would be shut down or significantly reduced and most USDA employees would be furloughed.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has the authority to specify which programs and services are essential and, therefore, which agency employees are exempt from furlough. He has identified the following as related to law enforcement and the protection of life and property — and therefore exempt from being shut down:

•             Meat, poultry and egg inspection services
•             Grain and other commodity inspection, weighing and grading services funded by user fees
•             Inspections for import and export activities to prevent the introduction and dissemination of pests into and out of the U.S.
•             Forest Service law enforcement and fire suppression efforts.

In addition, the agency official said that funds are available to continue

•            the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Child Nutrition programs through June.

•            the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP — aka food stamps) through May.

The rest of USDA’s activities are likely to be put on hold. These include:

•             Farm loans and other farm payments
•             Provision of conservation technical and financial assistance
•             Provision of new rural development loans and grants for housing, community facilities, utilities and businesses
•             Agricultural export credit and other agricultural trade development and monitoring activities
•             Investigation of packers and stockyards related to fraudulent and anti-competitive activities
•             Assistance for the control of most plant and animal pests and diseases

If the shutdown occurs, research facilities will be closed except for the care of animals and plants.

Most departmental management, administrative, and oversight functions, including civil rights, human resources, financial management, audit, legal, and information technology activities will be discontinued or severely curtailed.

National Forest System recreation sites that require a Forest Service employee to stay open will be closed to the public.

Market news reports, NASS statistics, and other agricultural economic and statistical reports and projections will be discontinued.

I’m writing this an hour and a half before President Barack Obama meets again with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner, at 7 p.m. ET.

My guess? That Boehner will continue to obey the minority of Republicans who refuse to honor the $32 billion in cuts the Speaker said earlier he could agree to, or the $33 billion the President is willing to sign off on, even though he could get an affirmative house vote without them. I think the shutdown will start at midnight Friday and continue through the weekend, by which time Boehner will recognize the harm he’s doing hundreds of thousands of government employees and the American people by refusing to work around the recalcitrant ones — not to mention the harm those folks are doing the rest of the Republican Party — and will agree to the $33 billion in cuts Obama is offering.

If the shutdown occurs, I expect both houses of Congress will make whole the people who lost pay as a result, including themselves and their staffs, when it’s over. The people who suffer most will be those who planned to visit a national park over the weekend. But the stain that results will take past 2012 to eradicate.

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