Agriculture Department Might Escape Furloughs

Dr. Sam Simon chops corn on his dairy farm outside Hyde Park, N.Y. Dr. Sam Simon chops corn on his dairy farm outside Hyde Park, N.Y. Jim McKnight/AP File Photo

The Agriculture Department will not have to furlough employees at the Farm Service Agency this fiscal year, and hopes to avoid putting workers at the Rural Development division on unpaid leave because of budget cuts.

If Rural Development escapes the furlough ax that means the department’s roughly 94,000 employees are off the hook in fiscal 2013. An Agriculture spokeswoman confirmed that furloughs are not on the table for any other agencies now in the department.

The department was able to avert furloughs at FSA by freezing hiring, cutting discretionary operating and contract expenses and transferring unused funds from a conservation program to cover salaries, an Agriculture spokeswoman said. Secretary Tom Vilsack also notified congressional appropriators in an April 23 letter that he intends to use the department’s special limited authority -- known as interchange transfer authority -- to shift money within the Rural Development division to avoid furloughs there. Congress has 30 days to review the request, so employees at Rural Development should know their fate by late May.

Vilsack’s proposal pertains only to Rural Development, said the spokeswoman. Agriculture is one of a few departments that has interchange transfer authority, “which allows for transfers of up to 7 percent among certain accounts within an individual USDA agency, and reprogramming authority as it implements sequestration,” said Michael Young, the department’s director of budget and analysis, in March congressional testimony.

The developments are welcome news to the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many FSA and Rural Development workers. “They did come through,” said Steve Hollis, a local AFGE president, adding that he will “give credit to the administration.” Hollis said he is hopeful that lawmakers will approve Vilsack’s request related to Rural Development.

Vilsack in April told House appropriators that employees at FSA and Rural Development could be forced to take up to 10 furlough days because of a 2.5 percent cut to Agriculture’s budget -- on top of sequestration -- in the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution enacted in March. FSA has 11,928 employees, while Rural Development has about 4,800 workers, according to department statistics.

Hollis said at that time that he was unaware that furloughs were a possibility at Rural Development, and noted that the agency had shed 3,000 employees during the past few years and officials had indicated unpaid leave would be averted. He added at the time that it was unfair to target those two USDA agencies in particular.

The Farm Service Agency, which provides loans and disaster assistance among other services to farmers and ranchers, was able to take advantage of flexibility that it received from Congress in the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution. FSA transferred unused money from its Conservation Reserve Program to cover the shortfall in salaries. The CRP is a voluntary program that pays farmers through rental payments and cost-share assistance between 10 and 15 years to develop their land for conservation purposes.

“This action allowed FSA to close the remaining funding gap created by sequestration and recissions and to avoid disruptive furloughs,” the Agriculture spokeswoman said. FSA Administrator Juan Garcia told employees in an April 24 email that furloughs would not be necessary at the agency. “While this is excellent news, it remains critical that we continue present efforts to manage these budget reductions,” Garcia wrote. “I know that adapting to diminishing resources over the past several years has not been easy.”

Meat inspectors at Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service also avoided furloughs this fiscal year when Congress added funds to the CR.

The efforts to avoid furloughs at Agriculture, as well as at the Federal Aviation Administration, reinforce the conventional political wisdom that Congress could be content to scale back the sequester in a piecemeal fashion, based on pressure from the public, or powerful interest groups, rather than in one fell swoop.

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