By Seymour Klierly
Just when you thought the budget battles and fights over a looming sequester were over, here they are again. While averting the "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1, Congress pushed back sequestration only a few months. Now that the debt ceiling has been raised by the "No Budget, No Pay Act" sequestration is the latest crisis in Washington.
For the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sequestration is certainly a mixed bag. Several large expenditures including nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, school lunches, and crop insurance are exempted from the sequester, or automatic cuts. However, the majority of the rest of USDA's budget would be slashed across the board by 8.2 percent. For some programs and agencies under the department, this would be a dramatic decrease. For example, the Women, Infants and Children food program would face a $543 million cut. That large of a decrease in a short amount of time would cause roughly 900,000 women and children to fall out of the program.
Certainly, the agriculture community and leaders in Congress know that there is a better, more efficient way to reduce the deficit than across-the-board cuts. Both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees have debated and advanced reforms that save money in the short and long term. The farm bill passed by the Senate Ag Committee represented $24 billion in reductions that all would have been used to decrease the deficit. Similarly, the Ag Committee in the House proposed budget reductions of up to $35 billion over a 10-year window.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition drove the point home in a recent blog post, "Had the 2012 farm bill been allowed to pass and become law, and had the House and Senate split the difference between the savings generated by their respective bills, Congress would have already reduced the deficit by $29 billion over the next decade, or slightly more than quadruple the amount that will be saved from the farm bill if sequestration is allowed to trigger on March 1. No other congressional committees can make this claim."
The aggies in Washington, D.C., are the only ones that have stepped up to the plate by producing solid reforms that do decrease the deficit. Keeping budget reductions in the hands of the Committees of jurisdiction is the only way to limit unintended consequences. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is forecasting that "the U.S. will need to reduce the number of inspections at meatpacking plants unless Congress can avoid threatened across-the-board spending cuts set to take affect in March."
Unfortunately the opportunity to pass the farm bill to pay for the sequester may have passed last year. Speaking about the farm bill, House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, announced, "There is no starting date at this point. I wish I could say there was but there are so many pieces in place, so much that needs to be sorted out, so many issues that need to be addressed." For producers these games are a bad case of deja vu.
Editor's note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.