Vilsack details shutdown impact on USDA

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks to reporters at the White House on Monday about the effects of a government shutdown on people receiving help from federal nutrition programs. Photo from White House video

At the daily White House press briefing Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained how a government shutdown would impact USDA nutrition programs, particularly the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and aid to farmers, and answered questions about foreign purchases of U.S. farmland and agricultural businesses.

White House Press Secretary Katharine Jean-Pierre introduced Vilsack, telling reporters, “we’re going to hold extreme House Republicans accountable. We’re going to hold them accountable for the reckless cuts they are demanding as a condition — as a condition for keeping the government open.”

Vilsack, Jean-Pierre said in her introduction, will “give you a laydown of the impacts and to talk about what the extreme Republicans — what — what they’re about to do is going to really impact families and Americans across the country.”

“If you think about it, the risk of vital nutrition assistance for nearly 7 million mothers and young children who count on WIC, prevent farmers from being able to access new loans, and delay housing loans for rural families,” she added. “And that is what they’re — we’re looking at if this shutdown — this Republican shutdown occurs.”

Vilsack noted that he was secretary during the 2013 government shutdown.

“I remember then the needless challenges and disruption that it caused,” Vilsack said. “So, I’m here today to suggest that there are real consequences to real people in a real way when there is a shutdown, especially one that ought not to happen. And — and I’m hopeful that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t happen.”

Vilsack continued, “Republicans have called for a CR [continuing resolution]. And I’ll just say two things about that. It just is basically carrying forward the extreme cuts that we’ve seen and saw in the budget that was proposed in the House Ag appropriations committee.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks to reporters at the White House on Monday about the effects of a government shutdown on people receiving help from federal nutrition programs. Photo from White House video

“At the time, I said the budget was pathetic, it was punitive, and it was petty. And I would say that that also continues to be the case.”

“We anticipate and expect that more than 50,000 of those who work for USDA will be furloughed. And when they’re furloughed, it means that they don’t receive a paycheck. Because they don’t receive that paycheck, their local economies get impacted and affected.”

“It’s across the board. It’s every county in the country. We have a presence in every county in the country. So, it’s going to impact and affect literally every county in the country.

“It’s FSA offices. It’s rural development offices. It’s NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] conservation employees. It’s some of the Forest Service employees. It’s a lot of the researchers and people who work for the Agricultural Research Service — ARS. It’s — it’s administrative staff.”

Responding to questions, Vilsack said that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be known as food stamps and is an entitlement for all who meet the income criteria, would continue for the month of October, but “if the shutdown were to extend longer than that, there would be some serious consequences to SNAP.”

The WIC program, which is appropriated rather than an entitlement, “stops immediately when the shutdown occurs,” Vilsack said.

But he added, “We have a contingency fund at USDA that might continue it for a day or two. Some states may have leftover WIC benefits that have not been spent, which could extend it for a week or so in that state. But the vast majority of WIC participants would see an immediate reduction and elimination of those benefits, which means the nutrition assistance that’s provided would not be available.”

Talking about the farm economy, Vilsack noted, “Now is the time when farmers are harvesting their crops and they’re seeking marketing loans, which allow them and assist them in ensuring that they get a decent price for their crop. When we have a shutdown, Farm Service Agency offices in virtually every county of this country shut down and those loans are not available.”

He continued, “It’s not just about farm loans. It’s about newlyweds who have decided to purchase their first home in a rural small town. Perhaps they’re getting a loan guarantee from a bank that is guaranteed by USDA or perhaps they’re getting a direct loan from USDA to be able to purchase that home. With a shutdown, those loans don’t take place.”

A shutdown, he added, “puts at risk the small- and mid-sized farming operation in terms of their ability to get credit when they need credit, their ability to pay their bills when they need to pay their bills, the ability to make sure that they can harvest their crop.”

“If they can’t harvest the crop or they don’t get the marketing assistance loan, then it’s — they’re in a situation where they — they don’t profit. And if they don’t profit, they risk losing the farm.

“So, it creates a tremendous amount of stress. For what reason? There’s no reason for this shutdown. At the end of the day, we had a deal — a deal that the Senate passed with a majority of senators, a deal that passed the House with a majority of not just Democrats but also Republicans voting for it. A deal is a deal.”

But Vilsack also said that “the shutdown does not impact and affect crop insurance.”

Vilsack also noted that “USDA is responsible for maintaining 195 million acres of national forests and grasslands. These are often places where people go to recreate. And when they do, they provide tourism dollars to communities in which they are going and spending time.

“When we have a shutdown, those national forests shut down, and they are closed. And so, those family trips don’t take place, and those tourism dollars are not spent, and the jobs they support are at risk.”

Asked about food safety, Vilsack noted that the inspectors for meat, poultry and processed eggs who work for the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would remain on the job but he referred questions about other food inspections to the Food and Drug Administration.

The current farm bill also expires on Saturday. Asked about the writing of the next farm bill, Vilsack said the shutdown would make it impossible for USDA employees to provide the technical assistance that congressional leaders ask for in writing it.

“They call our office for technical assistance,” Vilsack said. “The phone is not going to get answered because no one is there. Why aren’t they there? Because we’re in a shutdown.

“That’s why it’s so ridiculous for us to even talk about this. We — we need to get — the speaker needs to do his job. He fought for it. He — you know, he — he negotiated for it. He needs to do the job and get the job done.”

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