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Interview with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Interview with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

By The Situation Room - February 27, 2013

BLITZER: I'm going to circle back now to the forced spending cuts that hit in just two days and how they will affect ordinary people all across the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture employs about 100,000 people and its 2013 budget calls for $155 billion in spending. It's being forced to cut $2 billion out of that. Some meat inspectors, programs to feed low-income families, they are potentially all on the chopping block. It would have huge ramifications for so many folks out there.

Republican lawmakers are asking why can't the cuts come from targeting other programs, including farm subsidies for millionaire farmers, for example.

The agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, is joining us now live from the New York Stock Exchange. Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming in.

TOM VILSACK, U.S. AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: You bet, Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the answer? Why not eliminate some of those huge subsidies for the wealthy farmers out there and not eliminate jobs for meat inspectors or food for poor people?

VILSACK: Well, the way the sequester law and the Budget Control Act was crafted, Wolf, we don't have that capacity or flexibility to do that. Every line item of the budget, with the exception of some of the nutrition programs, is subject to the same amount of cut, the same percentage cut. Indeed, farm subsidies may very well get cut at the same percentage as the food safety budget gets cut because it's every line item. And the food safety budget, unfortunately, is mostly people.

And I've heard also members of Congress complain about the fact that maybe there's travel that could be cut or supplies that could be cut. We've already done that, Wolf. We can show you somewhere between seven hundred and $1 billion worth of cuts that we've already absorbed and that we've already had savings in in a variety of categories. So it's not like there's a great deal of unnecessary travel or conferences or even personnel. We don't even have 100,000 folks working for us anymore. Our workforce is down by eight percent, and we're dealing with a budget that's less than it was in 2009.

BLITZER: Because Phil Graham, the former U.S. senator -- I don't know if you saw his article on the op-ed page in "The Wall Street Journal" today. He made this point, and I'll read it to you. He said, "Instead of protecting children from cuts in nutrition programs, the president will continue to allow $2.7 billion of fraud and mismanagement he has identified in the food stamp program." Can't you eliminate that $2.7 billion of what is described by the president as fraud and mismanagement?

VILSACK: Wolf, that fraud rate in the SNAP program is roughly one percent. It's the lowest fraud rate in the history of the program. It has declined every single year that the president has been in office. We have enforced a new alert system. We are doing a much better job of doing investigations. Last year, we did over 800,000 individual investigations and several thousand investigations of convenience stores and grocery stores. Forty-some thousand people were disqualified for the program. So, that is already happening. And we're continuing to reduce that rate as we speak.

But this is a situation where it's not about being able to focus on a particular area. Every line item of the budget is required to be cut. There's no wiggle room, especially in food safety because most of what food safety is is people. And most of the people are the folks who actually inspect your meat, your poultry and your processed eggs. When they walk off the floor because they have to be furloughed because the way in which this is structured, they essentially will shut down the entire production facility.

BLITZER: You raised the issue of SNAP. Briefly tell us what SNAP stands for?

VILSACK: SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and it's essentially exempted by Congress from the sequester. So, a good deal of what you refer to at the opening of the $150 billion budget, which it's actually substantially less than that now, a good portion of that is actually exempted from the sequester by congressional action.

BLITZER: That's food stamps, in other words, right?

VILSACK: That's correct.

BLITZER: All right. So, there's another -- I raise the issue of SNAP, because John Boehner, among others, have pointed out that there's a program -- a lot of people don't know this -- a billion, maybe two billion dollars of giving free cell phone service to poor people who qualify for the SNAP program, for the food stamps program. Boehner wrote in "The Wall Street Journal" the other day, "No one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still giving folks free cell phones." I know this is not a directly administered by the Department of Agriculture it, but what do you think of his complaint?

VILSACK: Well, Wolf, I think that's done -- if I'm not mistaken, that's an FCC issue, and I don't know the details of it. But I can tell you this and I can tell the speaker this: we have engaged in the last couple of years focusing on ways in which we can save resources. We actually had 833 cell phone contracts when I became secretary. We've now condensed them into 30 cell phone contracts and we've saved billions of dollars. We've reduced the number of landlines. We've reduced travel and conferences, as I've said before. We're strategically sourcing. We've reduced our workforce. We've actually closed 250 offices and labs around the country, much to the concern and criticism by some members of Congress when we did that.

So we have already taken the difficult steps, and we'll continue to do that. But the way that the sequester is structured, as the president says, it's not a smart way to reduce the budget. It just isn't the right way to reduce the budget, and hopefully over the next couple of days, cooler minds will prevail and we'll avoid this unfortunate circumstance.

BLITZER: We can only hope. Mr. Secretary, what about this proposal from some Republicans? They say to the president, you ought to cut $85 billion, half domestic spending, half defense spending. This is a stupid way of doing it across the board. We're going to give you the flexibility so you don't have to cut meat inspectors, you don't have to cut food for poor people, you can go ahead and do it in a smarter way. The White House saying, not so fast. They are not interested in getting this flexibility. Here's a question to you as a member of the president's cabinet, the secretary of agriculture. Why?

VILSACK: Well, first of all, I'm not sure that all Republicans are united in that concept. But just assume for the sake of discussion that they are. That deals with the micro problem. It doesn't deal with the macro problem. And the macro problem is the economy at large. When you take $85 billion out of the economy in a relatively short period of time in a matter of months and you combine that with the payroll tax deduction that went into effect at the first of the year, you're taking roughly $250 billion out of the economy, which is absolutely going to affect gross domestic product. When that happens, you're talking about jobs at a time when we're trying to increase the number of jobs, not decrease the numbers of jobs.

In my circumstance, with the food safety issue, when those inspectors walk off the floor, there is as many as a quarter of a million folks who are impacted by that decision. So, you've got to look both at the macro and micro aspects of this. There's a smart way to do this. The president has put a smart way on the table, of a balance of revenue and reductions over a long period of time. And he's open to a discussion of entitlement reform. Seems to me that's a pretty good deal, and folks in Congress ought to take him up on that deal.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, good luck. A lot of people are worried about what's happening. I know you're deeply worried yourself. Let's hope they can come up with sort of resolution over the next 48 hours. I'm worried that they won't, but let's hope they can. Appreciate it very much.

VILSACK: You bet. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Secretary Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture. 

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