President Trump listens to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during a signing ceremony for the 2018 farm bill in December.

President Trump listens to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during a signing ceremony for the 2018 farm bill in December. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

USDA Continues Controversial Call-Backs of Furloughed Employees

Farm Service Agency to resume full services on Thursday.

Continuing the Trump administration’s disputed approach of calling back furloughed employees before the partial government shutdown has ended, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Tuesday announced he is “reopening” the scattered offices of the Farm Service Agency.

Since Jan. 17, specified offices of that Agriculture Department sub-agency have been providing “limited services for existing loans and tax documents,” the department noted in a release.

But as of Jan. 24, that agency’s offices around the country—comprising some 9,700 employees—will reopen to “provide additional administrative services to farmers and ranchers during the lapse in federal funding.”

Recently enacted legislation guarantees that employees will receive all back pay missed during the shutdown, the department noted.

“At President Trump’s direction, we have been working to alleviate the effects of the lapse in federal funding as best we can, and we are happy to announce the reopening of FSA offices for certain services,” Perdue said. “We want to offer as much assistance as possible until the partial government shutdown is resolved.”

All these new moves were made following a review of funding accounts with the Office of Management and Budget, the department said.

Perdue also announced that the deadline to apply for the Market Facilitation Program, which aids farmers harmed by unjustified retaliatory tariffs, has been extended from Jan. 15 to Feb. 14. Other program deadlines may be modified and will be announced as they are addressed.

The reopening does not restore normalcy, however. Transactions that will not be available to farmers and ranchers include New Conservation Reserve Program contracts, the New Direct and Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans, the Farm Storage Facility Loan Program, and New or in-process Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program applications.

In a sign that resistance to such early call-backs continues, the nonprofit advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Tuesday sent a complaint to Congress’s Government Accountability Office asking it to investigate the Interior Department’s recent recall of specified employees who are furloughed.

What PEER calls “non-emergency work” addressed by Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt with a recall include those who “process oil and gas drilling permits and prepare environmental analyses for expanded hunting in national wildlife refuges, among other tasks that fall outside the shutdown law's exception for cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,” PEER wrote. It called the call-backs “in potential violation” of the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort disputed that characterization: "In complete compliance with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, Acting Secretary Bernhardt is taking appropriate measures to allow employees to work and earn a paycheck on time." 

Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director said, “Interior appears to be gaming the system to circumvent the shutdown,” in some instances telling affected staff they are being paid with carryover funds from the prior fiscal year. “These Interior agencies have never previously reported budget surpluses, especially excesses large enough to last well into the second quarter of the current fiscal year,” he added.

While those employees called back are reportedly being paid, “most of their fellow staff, whose work may be just as vital or more so, are furloughed and not allowed to work, and while still other ‘excepted’ staff working on essential tasks must keep working with no pay.”

The reason PEER chose GAO for the letter, Ruch added, is that Interior’s inspector general’s office and Freedom of Information Act office are closed.