Possible Meat Inspector Furloughs May Be Top Topic at Feb. 26 Hearing With Vilsack

February 14, 2013 01:22 AM
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Disagreement over possible unpaid leave for all FSIS workers

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Possible meat inspector furloughs under a coming sequester will likely be a key topic on Feb. 26 when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack appears before the Ag Committee to discuss the rural economy.

Ag panel Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said he and other Committee members want to know more about USDA's announcement that all Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) personnel, including inspectors at slaughterhouses, could be furloughed for up to 15 days if the sequester starts March 1. Under federal law, meatpackers cannot keep their operations going unless an inspector is present.

Latest word is that a plan to possible deal with the sequester is not likely until lawmakers deal with the March 27 expiration of the continuing resolution (CR) for Fiscal Year 2013.

Lucas said the furloughs of inspectors would be a break from past practices as USDA usually classifies inspectors as essential personnel not subject to furloughs, he said. “This could have tremendous impact, whether it is the packing industry in Kansas or Iowa, a huge impact on people and consumers all over the country,” Lucas said.

Vilsack has previously stated that worker exemptions that exist under short-term government shutdowns do not apply under sequestration. Although the department has cut FSIS expenses to reduce the length of furloughs, Vilsack said the automatic cuts would require a higher level of savings that necessitates unpaid leave for all FSIS workers.

Comments: While Republicans and some meat industry officials dispute Vilsack's analysis of the situation, there is a political angle to the coming sequester cuts, as President Obama has aggressively tried to get Congress to offer a plan to avoid the coming $85 billion in cuts. Seeking to pressure Republicans into negotiating an alternative to the looming across-the-board spending cuts, House Democrats are warning the reductions would force “massive” unpaid furloughs for federal workers that would impact operations across government. House Democratic appropriators released a 38-page report on Tuesday detailing the size of the funding and personnel cuts that would result from sequester, due to hit March 1, and the impacts for a wide range of agencies, services and states. Meanwhile, Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) will hold a hearing today that will also examine the consequences of the sequester on federal programs. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada plans to unveil his $120 billion sequester replacement package today — an evenly divided mix of spending cuts and tax hikes. And he has said he will put the measure on the floor early in the week of Feb. 25. On the Republican side, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) stood in front of a lectern Wednesday emblazoned with the Twitter slogan “#Obamaquester,” while a digital clock loomed behind him ticking off the remaining 15-and-a-half days until the deadline. “The sequester is bad policy,” Boehner said. “That’s why the president ought to be forthcoming with a plan to replace his own sequester.”

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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