House Natural Resources Committee Report Finds White House Office of Management and Budget Ordered Sequester of Secure Rural School Funds over USDA Opposition

Ron Roizen did a splendiferous job in covering the same thing I tried to earlier today.. so I copied in its entirety.

Editor’s Note: Report from this morning’s Sierra Sun Times (Mariposa, California).

Committee Chair, Doc Hastings

Committee Chair, Doc Hastings

USDA then chose to broadly apply sequester to impact all SRS states

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 14, 2014 – The House Natural Resources Committee released an interim Majority staff report today detailing information uncovered during the Committee’s ongoing investigation into the Obama Administration’s decision to retroactively apply 2013 sequestration cuts to 2012 Secure Rural School (SRS) funds that had already been distributed. The report, entitled “A Less Secure Future for Rural Schools: An Investigation into the Obama Administration’s Questionable Application of the Sequester to the Secure Rural Schools Program,” highlights the Committee’s investigation and preliminary findings based on internal emails and documents that were subpoenaed by the Committee in September 2013.

The oversight investigation to date has found that attorneys in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of General Counsel had determined in February that the 2013 sequestration would not apply to 2012 SRS funds already distributed. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) overruled that interpretation, leaving USDA and the Forest Service scrambling in March 2013 to figure out how to make up the shortfall and to justify the decision to apply the sequester to money already paid to states. Both USDA and OMB continue to withhold an unknown number of subpoenaed documents.

The report concludes:

“There are a number of important questions that remain unanswered about the authority for the sequester decisions affecting the SRS program, whether the Obama Administration will continue to pressure states to return FY 2012 money that was paid to them in FY 2013 and later covered by the sequester, and how sequestration will affect the SRS program in future years.

Given the change in USDA’s legal analysis, pressure by the White House, and the desire for consistency at all costs, it is clear that Congress, states, and rural communities were right to question whether these decisions were correct and made for any reason other than to make sequestration as visible and painful as possible in rural communities across the country.”

“It’s taken many months and the issuance of subpoenas to extract some truth and transparency from the Obama Administration about its decision to demand states and rural communities return funds for schools and local law enforcement. Retroactively applying the 2013 sequester to 2012 SRS funds was done at the direction of the White House OMB and then USDA chose to apply the pain to all SRS states. We can’t forget that the impact of these actions falls on schoolchildren, teachers, police officers and small communities that the federal government has already failed by not keeping its promise of responsible timber harvests. It’s important that the questions surrounding this matter are fully answered,” said Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (WA-04).

Video of the Full Committee hearing.

Click here for the full report.

Click here for emails and documents obtained by the Natural Resources Committee.

For additional background on the Committee’s investigation, visit

http://naturalresources.house.gov/oversight/srscuts

9 Comments

  1. Sharon, I would suggest that this post leads us right down the rabbit hole (your term, but I like it) of partisan politics, which I thought was something we usually try to avoid. As your excerpt notes, this is an “interim Majority staff report”. The terms “interim” and “Majority staff” are important here.

    “Interim” is important because, as the report itself notes, “This report has not been officially adopted by the Committee on Natural Resources and may not necessarily reflect the views of its Members.”

    “Majority staff” is important, because (in the House) “Majority” means “Republican”, in this case the report is written by Doc Hastings (R-WA) and his staff and perhaps some colleagues. Without speaking to the merits of the issue, one would have to be politically blind not to recognize the partisan nature of Doc Hastings’ report.

    I’ll note the following published by USFS with regard to this issue, though anyone who has been the recipient of federal grants or other appropriations knows what a bag of worms they can be:
    http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5417552.doc
    “Sequestration Impacts on the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) Program
    Questions and Answers April 15, 2013 draft
    1. Why is the Secure Rural Schools Program being impacted by sequestration?
    A. All government funds apportioned in FY 2013 are subject to sequestration. There are only a few exceptions. While funding for SRS payments is based on the level of fiscal year 2012 receipts, section 102(e) of the SRS Act directs that the funds be paid after the end of the fiscal year and therefore it is budget authority for fiscal year 2013 and subject to sequestration. The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 (BBEDCA), as amended, requires that sequestration be taken at the budget account level, and applied equally to each program, project, and activity (PPA) in those accounts. In the case of Secure Rural Schools, the relevant account is the Forest Service Permanent Appropriations account, which includes two PPAs for Secure Rural Schools: one comprising the FY 2013 budget authority from receipts in fiscal year 2012 (the “receipts PPA”), and the other comprising additional FY 2013 budget authority provided from Treasury to cover the shortfall in receipts necessary to make the full SRS payments (the “Treasury payments PPA”). In calculating the amount of the sequester, BBEDCA repeatedly refers in 2 U.S.C. 901a, to the amounts for a “fiscal year” or “that year”. Thus, consistent with the application of sequestration across all USDA programs and across the Government as a whole, the amount of the sequester is based upon the full budgetary authority in the receipts PPA and the Treasury payments PPA for the entire fiscal year, not on the amount remaining available on March 1, 2013, the date of the sequester order.”

    Do I understand all that? Not really very well, which I suspect helps make it a good stump for Doc Hastings to speechify from. And also what will make it a great issue for us at NCFP to have a nice heated Hastings/Republicans vs Obama quagmire. Which I don’t plan to participate in, but wanted to make note of it, in case it isn’t blatently obvious.

      • yes, I read that letter (of almost a year ago), requesting a legal explanation of the accounting and requesting that SRS payments not be stopped/returned. If you read both the letter and the report, they are clearly different things with clearly (to me anyway) different agendas. Anyway, I said I’d stay out of this thread, so I’d better follow through.

    • We can’t not talk about what Congress does…because many important policy actions are taken by Congress. To me there is a clear line between talking about Congress and partisanizing the debate and it’s all about 1) externalities to the policy issue at hand and 2) maligning people in any party as a group. Actually it would be good if we didn’t malign people individually… but maybe I’m too picky.

      For example, “I disagree with the idea that … which is in House Bill… because my experience shows that that will not help the problem” Or “I disagree with it because I don’t see the problem that they are trying to solve.”

      Partisanizing says ” the R’s are always coming up with stupid venal ideas and this is a sublime example.” The difference is keeping the discussion focused on the policy issue and what you know about it and not how bad the party proposing it is. You could say, “I don’t think the R’s can win will get the votes for this one” without adding “because they are a bunch of redneck losers.” Partisanizing also leads to “everything our party says is right, everything their party says is wrong.” It’s like seeing the world through a filter.

      I think we do fairly well at this on this blog. But we can’t not cover the machinations of Congress.

  2. The more of this stuff that I read, the more convinced I am that high-yield federal timberlands must be removed from federal control and restored to rational management. If the F.S. was cutting only half of the annual growth (it’s now cutting ~6%), forest dependent schools and counties would have no need for SRS funds.

    • Mac: Your numbers are correct. It is significant that a number of the members of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees agree with you — that, given current circumstances, federal forest lands should be put into the hands of someone other than the USFS. Too many lawyers, too many fires, and too many families and counties going broke. No good reason for this to be happening. Maybe the Forest Service hasn’t failed us, but certainly our legislators have. “Boots on the ground” doesn’t mean wingtips in the courtrooms, but that’s what we’ve been getting for way too many years.

      • Travis: I think everybody probably disagrees with your statement, not just “lots of people.” Maybe they (whoever it is you are referring to) should also have a voice in fisheries management, too, and public transportation management, and national park management, and wastewater management, and oil refinery management, and high rise construction management, and bank management. But you are right — they really do have a voice in forest management. Why? Is it because forest management is so simple even a cave man could do it? Or is it some kind of inalienable birthright? I’ve never understood this position, or how it came to be generally accepted by large segments of the population.

        • They do have a voice in national park management, fisheries management, wastewater management and public transportation management.

          Given that the “experts” at banks across the United States managed themselves right into bankruptcy a few years ago, requiring a trillion-dollar bailout from the taxpayers while taking home billions of dollars in bonuses… I’m pretty sure getting some public voices into bank management might be beneficial, too.

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