The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

USDA: Shutdown details coming soon

An Agriculture Department spokesman said late today that the agency would soon release details of how it would handle a government shutdown.

Earlier today, Obama administration officials said that food stamp benefits have already been issued for April, but it is unclear whether federal meat inspectors could work if the government shuts down. Late today negotiations between the administration and Congress over the budget appeared to be going better, and a shutdown appeared less likely.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters that the food stamp benefits had already gone out for the month, but when asked whether the federal meat inspectors would be declared essential personnel and stay on the job, Vilsack was unwilling to discuss one segment of USDA employees separately from others, saying all will find out at the same time whether they will be able to work next Monday.

Vilsack said he and other administration officials are being very careful about making decisions about declaring employees “essential personnel.” Under the 1974 Budget Act, if the government shuts down, only personnel deemed “essential” are allowed to work. A senior administration official said today that means the military, law enforcement and those officials protecting property.

If Congress does not agree to a bill to continue financing the government by Friday, a shutdown will go into effect at midnight. Congress and the administration are trying to reach agreement on a bill that will finance the government through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, but there has been talk about another short-term continuing resolution.

American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle said in a statement today that USDA has not informed AMI, which represents meat packers, if Food Safety and Inspection Service staff would be classified as “essential personnel,” which would allow them to continue to work.

“In previous government shutdowns, FSIS inspection personnel have been treated as ‘essential personnel,’ Boyle said. “This is appropriate because they play a critical role in protecting the health and safety of individuals. We urge the department to consider the significant, negative impact of treating inspectors as anything but essential.”

Boyle continued: "Because FSIS-regulated meat and poultry plants are required to have inspectors present to operate, a government shutdown that doesn’t classify FSIS inspectors as essential could affect 3.7 million people and their ability to work, and cause a loss of roughly $3 billion in economic activity per day if meat plants were not able to operate during the stoppage, according to estimates by economist John Dunham of John Dunham & Associates. The longer a shutdown is in place, the greater the negative impact throughout the meat and poultry supply chain and ancillary industries."

But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said in a news release that in the event of a government shutdown, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would continue flood preparation efforts in the Red River Valley.

“It is unfortunate that partisan politics and an unwillingness to compromise can potentially shut down the United States government,” Conrad said. “There are real ramifications here — much more than closed museums and delayed passports. Up and down the swelling Red River we are seeing firsthand the uncertainty of what a shutdown really means.”