How the USDA Hacked the Sequester

Tom Vilsack got $55M in new money for meat inspectors

By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff

Posted Apr 1, 2013 7:51 AM CDT

(Newser) – There's no way to get out of the sequester's mandatory budget cuts, right? Wrong—at least for the USDA. Just three weeks after the sequester hit, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack found a way around it, snagging $55 million in new money for meat inspectors—just about the same amount the sequester took in the first place. The Washington Post has the inside story of what it calls Vilsack's "sharp political theater": He started warnings back in February about how bad the sequester would be for the USDA meat inspection program, insisting that workers would be furloughed for weeks, which would ultimately lead to US meat production being shut down for at least 11 days.

"The problem is, as soon as you take an inspector off the floor, that plant shuts down," Vilsack said at one agriculture industry conference, detailing the potential $10 billion in lost production, not to mention the food scarcity and safety issues. The meat inspectors' union and some in the meat lobby didn't quite believe him—budget cuts aren't a valid excuse to stop providing meat inspectors, as the USDA is required to do whenever a plant is running—but he scared them, and they backed him up. Vilsack insisted to a similarly skeptical House that there were no other alternatives, and the meat lobby got two senators behind the cause. Thus, $55 million that had been meant for other USDA programs went to the meat inspection program instead. Congressional leaders insist it was a one-time exception, but other interest groups are already making plans to try the same tactic.

In this July 18, 2012, file photo, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talks about the drought during a press briefing at the White House in Washington.
In this July 18, 2012, file photo, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talks about the drought during a press briefing at the White House in Washington.   (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
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We had accused the secretary of using America’s cattlemen and women as pawns in his political wrangling of Congress. We still stand by that. - Chase Adams,
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

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