Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack turned up pressure on Congress on Monday to avert a partial government shutdown, predicting impacts on food aid, access to public lands, and the federal loans that support homeownership and farm operations.
“It’s incredibly disruptive,” Vilsack said at a White House news conference, adding that as many as 50,000 workers at the Department of Agriculture could be furloughed, hurting USDA operations in “every county in the country.”
Vilsack, who oversaw the USDA during a 2013 shutdown over similar budget-related conflicts in Congress, was the featured speaker at the daily White House news briefing, driving home the Biden administration’s message that far-right House Republicans are pursuing extreme policies to bring the government to its knees.
A shutdown would have “real consequences to real people in a real way,” Vilsack said, including possibly slowing passage of the five-year farm bill that authorizes programs across the USDA and leaving the department less able to help lawmakers obtain information they need to craft the bill.
The 2018 farm bill expires Sept. 30, although lawmakers have said the new version could wait until December with minimal negative effect.
House Republicans see the issue differently, saying the budget impasse is an opportunity to rein in what they consider runaway federal spending and a demand from constituents for leaner government programs, as well as a chance to exert influence on other issues such as aid to Ukraine.
Some USDA operations would carry on, Vilsack said, including meat and poultry inspections and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But benefits through the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program could stop within days, or perhaps weeks in states with enough extra money on hand, he said. The program covers around half the babies born in the U.S., he said.
Farmers who’ve applied for USDA marketing loans ahead of the fall harvest could see those applications halted as Farm Service Agency offices close, Vilsack said. Direct USDA loans for homebuyers in rural areas might not go through, he said, potentially squelching purchase deals.
“It creates a tremendous amount of stress,” Vilsack said.
The looming shutdown comes as House Republicans seek still-deeper reductions in agriculture spending than what the GOP-led Appropriations Committee approved several months ago. A manager’s amendment filed on the bill being considered this week would cut most agriculture programs by an additional 14.15 percent, or $1.2 billion, with the exception of the nutrition programs.