WASHINGTON — The sequester was supposed to be something new in Washington: a budget cut you couldn’t beat. Once it hit, it hit. The money was gone, and nobody could get it back.
That turned out to be true — for about three weeks. Then somebody beat it.
Last week, President Barack Obama signed a spending bill that gave the Agriculture Department’s food inspectors what everybody else wanted: a get-out-of-the-sequester card. Their program got $55 million in new money, which replaced almost all of what the sequester took.
There’s a story there, about how power and lobbying can still make money appear in Washington, even in this age of austerity. It started with sharp political theater.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack insisted that the sequester would force him to shut down all U.S. meat production on at least 11 days.
The inspectors union didn’t believe that. Neither did many in the powerful meat lobby. But they were too worried not to help Vilsack anyway. After an extensive campaign, the Senate gave Vilsack the money.
So the sequester can be hacked. Now, other interest groups are waiting: police officers, airport executives, Border Patrol agents. The question is: Can it be hacked again?
“It is those who make the most noise that sometimes succeed,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who failed in his push to exempt small air traffic control towers from the effects of the sequester. “I thought I’d made a lot of noise,” Moran said. Until he saw he had lost and the meat lobby and Vilsack had won.
This was not, of course, the way sequestration was supposed to turn out. Back in 2011, it was designed to exempt some areas of government: welfare, food stamps, Social Security, veterans programs. But where it cut, it was supposed to cut like a razor, clean and even:
Defense programs lose 7.3 percent across the board. Non-defense spending programs lose 5.1 percent.
Nobody could get out. Because then, everybody would want out. And the sequester was meant to force a gridlocked Washington to come up with something else.
“We need a big fix. And once you start making everybody happy, you lose the leverage in a negotiation” for a bigger deal, said a Republican aide in the House, speaking anonymously to explain the GOP leadership’s thinking. The even spreading of the pain”was the whole point of sequestration to begin with,” the aide said.
Of course, Washington is not a place where people sit back and accept equal treatment. Since sequestration began taking effect on March 1, some programs have lobbied for little victories, taking a bigger piece of their department’s smaller pie.
Corrections officers persuaded the Justice Department to shift more money their way, eliminating the threat of furloughs. The Pentagon found $10.4 billion, so furloughs for civilian employees were reduced. But none of them got Congress to give them money to replace what the sequester took. That trick was pulled off, somehow, by the workers who inspect animal carcasses.
The campaign to do it began in early February, when the sequester was still weeks away. Earlier than many other Cabinet secretaries, Vilsack began describing in detail how badly his department would be hit.
“In our food safety area . . . we will have to furlough workers for a period of a couple of weeks,” Vilsack said, speaking to an agriculture industry conference in Las Vegas. “The problem is, as soon as you take an inspector off the floor, that plant shuts down.”
He had details: There could be $10 billion in lost production and more than $400 million lost worker wages. Diners would be affected, too; beef and poultry would get scarcer. “Food safety could be compromised,” he said.
In the world of meat, people took notice. But a lot of them thought Vilsack was stretching the truth.
Even the meat inspectors’ union doubted he would make good on the promise of shutting plants down. Federal law requires the Agriculture Department to provide inspectors when a plant is running. A budget cut is not a valid excuse to stop, said Trent Berhow, an official with the inspectors union. “If the federal government truly did put the inspectors out of the plant, the industry would sue the hell out of them,” he said.
But Vilsack kept insisting, although he reduced the number of possible furlough days from 15 to 11. In a House hearing, lawmakers tried to get him to admit there were other, less drastic alternatives. Couldn’t he cut other costs instead? Couldn’t he furlough inspectors one region at a time, instead of nationwide?
No, Vilsack said. The sequester law tied his hands. There was one solution: “Just give us the resources,” he said.
“That’s not the option, Mr. Secretary, as you well know,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
“Well, see, now, that’s a choice you all are making, all right?” Vilsack said.
His strategy worked. The union — although still skeptical — began urging that the furloughs be prevented. The meat industry also began to worry. What if Vilsack really did pull the inspectors and shut the plants?
Living animals would start backing up, unable to be slaughtered on schedule. They would consume extra feed, extra space, extra money.
“We had accused the secretary of using America’s cattlemen and women as pawns in his political wrangling of Congress,” said Chase Adams of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “We still stand by that.”
But despite that, the cattlemen started to advocate for Vilsack’s cause. So he succeeded?
“There, you got us,” Adams said. “Because that’s it. He got what he wanted.”
The effort was joined by the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation and the American Meat Institute, heavyweights of one of Washington’s powerful agriculture lobbies. In the Senate, their cause was picked up by two influential senators from strongly agricultural states: Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Those two found a solution: $55 million in new money that had been meant for other Agriculture Department programs. Blunt and Pryor wrote an amendment that would give it, instead, to the meat inspection program. This was sequester-proofing. After the sequester took its cut, the meat-inspection program would be left with almost as much money as it had before.
They built support in the Senate. They checked with the House to make sure that GOP leaders would go along with the idea there. It all worked. “Fortunately, chickens know no political boundaries,” said one Democratic aide involved in that process.
Finally, the day came. The victory — like most in the backroom-dealing Senate — appeared utterly undramatic when it happened.
“All those in favor say ‘Aye,’ ” said Sen. William “Mo” Cowan, D-Mass. There was a chorus of ayes. “The amendment is agreed to.” Last week, after Obama signed the bill, the Agriculture Department passed the good news to the inspectors: The furloughs won’t happen. There will be meat.
Now, leaders in both houses of Congress insist that no more exceptions will be made. But a number of other interest groups believe they will be the next. “We’re going to keep fighting with our friends on the Hill to find a solution,” said Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association. “Aviation safety shouldn’t be politicized.”
His cause is the same as Kansas’s Sen. Moran: 149 control towers at small and medium-size airports that the Federal Aviation Administration announced it will shutter. It has lost out, so far — partly because the administration says it wants a long-term solution, not just a short-term stay of execution for these towers.
The U.S. Park Police union — whose members face 14 days of furloughs — are also hoping to get themselves protected. They want $5 million, far less than the meat inspectors.
They don’t have a powerful lobby behind them. But now they know it can be done.
“The only thing we can do is try to get our message out to members of Congress to fund us, like they funded the other agencies that got a break,” said Ian Glick, the union’s chairman.