Budget top of mind as USDA celebrates 150th birthday

Tuesday - 5/15/2012, 8:11am EDT

Tom Vilsack, secretary, Department of Agriculture

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The Agriculture Department is four months into the modernization effort that Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in January, which dovetails with the department's year-long reflection on where it started 150 years ago and where it's headed now.

"The key here obviously is we're dealing with tight budgets, so we're dealing with a different fiscal circumstance than perhaps we've ever seen in this department," Vilsack told In Depth with Francis Rose on Monday.

"Substantial cuts have been ordered by Congress and I suspect that we may be looking at difficult budgets for the foreseeable future," he said. "So, rather than being managed by the change, we'd like the manage the change here at USDA that doesn't jeopardize the important work that we do."

To that end, USDA has put together a blueprint for strengthening service, focusing on a "bottom-up opportunity" to engage workers on how they can do their jobs more efficiently, he said.

Tom Vilsack, secretary, Agriculture Department (USDA)

"There are ways that we can do our job better," Vilsack said. "Everybody at USDA knows that and they're offering solutions and suggestions. Whether it's fewer cell phone contracts or fewer hard lines of phones we don't use, saving millions of dollars can help save jobs at the same time and make sure that we have people there to provide the service that's important to people."

While implementing some of these ideas has been difficult, Vilsack said it's better than just cutting jobs in order to operate under a contracted budget. He's shared this approach with other agencies as well as members of Congress.

"I think people on the Hill for the most part are appreciative of the information and appreciative that we've taken a strategic view and sort of a comprehensive view of this," Vilsack said. "We've tried to avoid criticism and complaint, which often occurs situations like this and we basically recognize the circumstance for what it is."

Vilsack is concerned about recent talk in the House about implementing $200 billion in reductions at his agency, much of which would come from cuts to nutrition assistance programs.

"We are encouraging members of Congress to make sure that we don't at USDA have to bear a disproportionate amount of the pain," Vilsack said. "We're happy to do our share, but I don't necessarily want to do anybody else's share. I do think there has to be shared sacrifice and shared responsibility. So my hope is, as Congress takes a look at this, we reflect a fairness."

To mark its 150th anniversary, USDA is throwing a party for itself today at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"It's a great opportunity for us first and foremost to say thank you to the people who have worked at USDA during that 150 years and built the department that it is today," Vilsack said. "I think President Lincoln would be quite pleased and proud of the USDA today and the work that it's doing. It starts here obviously with those who work here at USDA."

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC's Morning Joe program are emceeing Tuesday's event, which will include appearances by Rolling Stones' keyboardist Chuck Leavell and former NFL stars Art Monk and LaVar Arrington, who will be talking about nutrition.

For those who can't make it to the USDA auditorium, the event will be aired live online at usda.gov/live. Also, the agency has posted information about its year-long celebration at usda.gov/usda150.