WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak on Tuesday asking him to cancel conferences in California and Oregon to save money for more vital needs because of spending cuts that took effect last week.
While the Agriculture Department is warning it will have to furlough food inspectors and the public could suffer more illnesses, some of its agencies are planning a California Small Farm Conference next week and a health conference in Oregon next month, Coburn said in his letter to Vilsak.
The conferences include food and wine tasting activities, Coburn noted.
“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 said in his letter.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, asked Vilsak for the total costs to the department of the conferences and to provide him with a list of other conferences planned by the USDA.
“USDA has aggressively managed travel, conference and administrative costs to achieve $700 million in new efficiencies, savings, and cost avoidances during the last three fiscal years,” a spokesperson said.
“While conferences and workshops have decreased significantly in recent years, farmers and other constituents benefit from these forums because they are part of USDA's role to support agriculture and the American people.”
The USDA spokesperson said the agency is not a sponsor of the Oregon conference and has asked organizers to remove the USDA logo from the website.
In the past few weeks, Coburn has sent letters to the White House budget office and other federal departments asking them to set priorities and cut waste rather than essential services to absorb the spending cuts, known as the sequester, that were triggered on Friday.
The USDA, as some other departments, is restricted under the sequester from shifting money among agencies. Congress is expected to give more flexibility in legislation that may taken up by the House on Wednesday to keep the government running through September.