Senator to USDA: Cancel Wine Tastings Before Furloughing Food Inspectors

Republican says conferences should be cut before employee salaries.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has called for the Agriculture Department to cut conference spending to avoid employee furloughs, the latest in a series of suggestions stemming from the lawmaker’s ongoing effort to “prioritize” sequestration cuts.

Coburn pointed to two conferences in particular -- the California Small Farm Conference and the Priester National Extension Health Conference in Oregon -- as examples of wasteful spending that should not survive sequestration cuts.

“While these conferences may be fun, interesting and even educational getaways for department employees, food inspecting rather than food tasting should be USDA’s priority at this time,” Coburn wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee highlighted certain activities on the conferences’ agendas -- such as a “tasting reception” featuring “exceptional local wines, brews and spirit” -- to demonstrate the events’ excesses.

The Office of Management and Budget has previously stated employees at the Food Safety and Inspection Service -- a division of Agriculture -- would be furloughed under sequestration, leading to temporary closures of food manufacturing plants that cannot legally operate without regular inspections.

Coburn has written several letters to various agencies, seeking to identify alternative cuts to avoid forced, unpaid leave for federal employees. Pentagon officials have said his ideas do not go far enough and called civilian furloughs “necessary.”

The Agriculture Department said it has already taken steps to reduce its conference expenditures.

“USDA has been aggressively managing travel and conference costs for the last several years to achieve savings,” a department spokesperson said. “As a result of this, and other efficiency initiatives, the Department has achieved over $700 million in efficiencies, savings, and cost avoidances during the last three fiscal years.”

Even if USDA were to cancel the conferences, sequestration prohibits Agriculture from shifting funds from the various sub-agencies that sponsor the events -- such as Rural Development and Agricultural Marketing Service -- to the FSIS, as Coburn recommends. 

(Image via Chiyacat/