Federal Times Blogs

Pork you can believe in

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Despite what you may have seen on the Drudge Report website this morning, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants to ensure Americans that his department did not spend $1.2 million for two pounds of sliced ham.

A series of alarmist headlines posted at the top of the Drudge Report home page lists details on some of the purchases Agriculture has made through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The headlines, which link to summaries of contracts on the Recovery.gov website, seem to suggest that Agriculture is wasting stimulus money on groceries — and worse, getting overcharged.

The headlines indicate that Agriculture awarded contracts of nearly $16.8 million for canned pork, $1.6 million for mozzarella cheese and $1.2 million for two pounds of frozen sliced ham.

In response, Vilsack issued a statement this morning explaining that the purchases are for large amounts of food items being delivered to food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries to help feed those who have been hardest hit by the economic recession. Agriculture received $100 million through the Recovery Act for the purchases.

The references to ’2 pound frozen ham sliced’ are to the sizes of the packaging. Press reports suggesting that the Recovery Act spent $1.191 million to buy ’2 pounds of ham’ are wrong. In fact, the contract in question purchased 760,000 pounds of ham for $1.191m, at a cost of approximately $1.50 per pound. In terms of the dairy purchase referenced, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) purchased 837,936 pounds of mozzarella cheese and 4,039,200 pounds of processed cheese.

Vilsack goes on to say that the purchases do provide a boost to the economy, by helping farmers and ranchers who produce the food, food retailers and those working for manufacturing and transportation companies.

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Leading the (green) way

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Federal agencies having a tough time meeting the plethora of green government mandates should take a close look at the 15 federal teams who have been recognized this year for spearheading environmentally sustainable practices at their agencies.

Winners of the 2009 White House Closing the Circle Awards — handed out Wednesday during the middle of the three-day 2009 Federal Environmental Symposium East in Bethesda, Md. –  are demonstrating best practices in areas such as recycling, green purchasing and fuel conservation.

The big winner was the Air Force, which received four awards for initiatives under way at local bases and headquarters. The Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in Denver was the biggest individual winner, taking home two awards.

A complete list of the winners — along with some of their accomplishments — is after the jump.

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2010 Budget: Program cuts

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During a news briefing this morning at the Old Executive Office Building to roll out his 2010 budget, President Obama provided a little more detail about some of the nearly $2 trillion in proposed cuts he mentioned during his joint session to Congress on Tuesday.

The highlights — or lowlights, depending on your view:

  • Nearly $200 million at the Interior Department by cutting programs to clean up abandoned coal mines that have already been cleaned up.
  • Nearly $20 million by modernizing programs and streamlining bureaucracy at the Agriculture Department.
  • Tens of millions of dollars by cutting an Education Department student mentoring program whose mission is being carrried out by 100 other programs in 13 other agencies.
  • Nearly $50 billion by cutting out benefits to citizens who aren’t entitled to them and closing tax loopholes to businesses.

Additionally, Obama said the budget would save billions by ending no-bid contracts in Iraq, ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas and rolling back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

The $2 trillion is just what has been identified during the first 30 days that the administration has been in office, Obama said. Further cuts will be proposed as part of the full budget Obama said will be released this Spring.


Too many regulators, not enough money

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The recent peanut butter recall — products from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) were contaminated with salmonella — makes a strong case for completely overhauling our food safety system.

First, I think it underscores the need to merge FDA’s food safety functions with those of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service — in other words, creating a single food regulator. 

Why? We’ve learned that USDA bought peanuts from PCA and used them for school lunch programs. In fact, it was one of the company’s two biggest customers. And it regularly sent inspectors to review records at PCA’s processing facility. But so did the FDA, the agency in charge of regulating peanut products.

So we had two federal agencies inspecting the same facility — a consequence of our splintered regulatory system.
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Vilsack: Modernize USDA IT, Work Force

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said modernizing agency information technology systems and addressing the aging work force will be top priorities for him.

He said during a teleconference earlier today:

It is important to me that the USDA be also a place of a modern workforce and a modern workplace. We’ll be focusing on IT improvements, process improvements and an empowered and diverse workforce to make that happen.”

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Senate confirms seven Cabinet nominees

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President Barack Obama’s Cabinet now has eight official members.

The Senate voted by voice vote just before 4 p.m. today to confirm the following seven nominees: Steven Chu for Energy, Arne Duncan for Education, Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Peter Orszag for director of the Office of Management and Budget, Ken Salazar for Interior, Eric Shinseki for Veterans Affairs and Tom Vilsak for Agriculture.

His Cabinet already included Robert Gates, whom Obama asked to stay on as Defense secretary.

But things aren’t moving so quickly for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state nomination. After her smooth hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, many expected Clinton to be confirmed today.

Enter Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who had questioned donations made by foreign groups and individuals to the foundation run by Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. He threatened a filibuster and said he was not convinced steps she outlined to prevent conflicts of interest between herself and potential donors were enough, and that was enough to stall Clinton’s vote for at least a day.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made it clear on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon he had little patience for Cornyn’s moves. He announced the scheduling of a three-hour executive session of the Senate Wednesday to discuss Clinton’s confirmation and scheduled a roll call vote at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

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Getting the skinny on biobased products

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Sure, we’ve been reporting for some time on the government’s requirement to purchase products made from agricultural or biological materials (see here, here and here). But Sen. Tom Harkin thinks it’s time for an update.

During today’s confirmation hearing for former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to head the Agriculture Department, the Iowa Democrat said he will use his position as chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee to address the biobased procurement requirement, which Harkin inserted into the 2002 Farm Bill.

Specifically, Harkin said he would call every Cabinet secretary before the committee to ask them about the so-called BioPreferred Program, which is managed by the Agriculture Department.

Vilsack said he would make sure to spread the word to all of his potential colleagues, but told Harkin it would probably take awhile for most to get up to speed on the issue.

“I would ask you to give me a couple months to let them know about this before you call them up here,” Vilsack said.

“Done,” Harkin replied.