USDA seeks authority to transfer funds to offset sequestration cuts

Wednesday - 3/20/2013, 5:51am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The Agriculture Department is one of the few agencies with special authorities to move money between accounts to help offset the cuts coming from sequestration.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked Congress yesterday for permission to use the reprogramming authority to help deal with cuts to the Farm Service Agency.

"The authority that we have is called the Secretary's Interchange Authority and that allows for the secretary to transfer up to 7 percent from one account within an agency to another account within that same agency," said Michael Young, the director of USDA's Office of Budget and Program Analysis, during a Tuesday hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, the Postal Service, and the Census and the Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Job Creation and Regulatory Affairs.

But even that authority won't help all of USDA's sub-components. Young said the Interchange Authority won't be available to the Forest Service due to a provision in Interior appropriations.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service is the USDA agency expected to be hit hardest by sequestration. But, FSIS won't be helped by the Interchange Authority either, since it doesn't have any accounts to move money around in. So, FSIS inspectors will continue to face 11 days of furloughs beginning in the next 45 days or so.

Should have asked sooner?

The fact that Vilsack just asked Congress for this authority rankled the Republicans on the committee.

Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), chairman of the Federal Workforce subcommittee, asked Young why USDA is just alerting Congress now when agencies knew cuts from sequestration were coming for the last 20 months.

"We've known about the sequester since August 2011. My grandmother taught me a lot of things, but one that I use almost every day is, 'Plan for the worst and hope for the best,'" he said. "Why didn't our government agencies apply this bit of common sense in dealing with the sequester?"

Farenthold and his colleagues said agencies could have been more proactive with sequestration planning.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said the communication between Congress and agencies is a two-way street and the Executive Branch could have asked the Legislative Branch for help at any time since the Budget Control Act passed.

Gosar pressed all three witnesses —Young, FCC's Managing Director David Robbins and the Commerce Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resource Management Hari Sastry — for answers to why they didn't send Congress a reprogramming request.

Young pointed to Vilsack's request from earlier in the day, but Sastry said Commerce hadn't submitted anything to Congress.

Robbins said the FCC is in a bit of a different situation where it has only one account so there is no need for transfer authority.

Suggestions welcome

Additionally, full committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked agencies Feb. 28 to submit to the committee ideas to cut programs to help offset sequestration.

Issa said no agency submitted suggestions except for the Defense Department.

USDA's Young and Commerce's Sastry both said they are working on those suggestions.

Issa expressed frustration that agencies could have offered one or two ideas that he could have written into a bill and gotten it passed in a matter of days to help, but since no agency really offered any ideas, time is lost.

Few other agencies have the same license as USDA to move money. Congress is trying to give the Defense Department more flexibility to reduce the impact of cuts from sequestration in the fiscal 2013 spending bill. But lawmakers are unlikely to give that same authority to other agencies.

Committee Democrats countered Republicans' argument that agencies had plenty of time to plan for sequestration.

"Do you have legal authority to restore, by reprogramming or transferring of funds, those cuts right now without prior authorization from us, Congress?" Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the full committee, asked the witnesses.

Sastry said Commerce doesn't have the authority. Young said USDA only has that 7 percent interchange authority. The FCC doesn't have authority either. Cummings added each agency is restricted by appropriations or authorization provisions from addressing sequestration cuts in any way but to reduce spending.

Congress is to blame

Cummings pointed the finger back at Congress for making the laws, enforcing the laws, and said only they can change the laws to give agencies reprogramming help.

OMB did encourage agencies to seek reprogramming authority from Congress before Obama signed the sequestration order.

Democrats also reminded Republicans that under the law, sequestration implementation plans are not due until 30 days after the President signed the order, which in this case is April 1.

"Criticizing federal agencies on March 19 on plans not being ready even though they are due on April 1 is premature to say the least," said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.).

The hearing started as a food fight between Republicans and Democrats over who's to blame for sequestration, whether the White House overstated the effects of the cuts, and whether the administration should have done a better job telling agencies to plan for the cuts.

Despite the debate within the committee, the cuts from sequestration are beginning to impact agencies.

Robbins said the FCC should be able to absorb the $17 million in cuts it faces under sequestration without furloughing employees, at least right now.

Commerce's Sastry didn't mention furloughs either, but its mission will suffer under the $567 million budget reduction the agency faces this year.

USDA will have to reduce its budget by almost $2 billion. Some bureaus will be able to deal with it better than others.

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