WASHINGTON – House Republicans harshly criticized the Department of Agriculture and the Obama administration Tuesday for retroactively imposing mandatory across-the-board federal budget cuts on funding for rural schools.
“I expect answers from our witness today and that we can walk away from this hearing giving rural counties the assurance that they will not endure further, politically motivated, cuts to schools, law enforcement and emergency services,” Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, said in his opening statement.
The only witness who showed up for the oversight hearing was Robert Bonnie, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment. Others called to testify were notably absent.
The sequestration cuts, by law, were made across the board, except for mandatory programs such as Social Security. For USDA, the cuts touched the Secure Rural Schools Program, which provides funding to rural counties for public education, police and other local services.
In March 2013 the Obama administration requested a repayment of $17.9 million of the $323 million in Secure Rural Schools funds already distributed, as part of the sequestration cuts. That’s what got the lawmakers hot.
Committee members described the impact on communities in their districts, including reduced money for local schools, infrastructure and forest projects. USDAs request for repayment drew bipartisan opposition in the committee.
Robert Bonnie agreed the cuts were unfortunate, but defended the decision to impose them, insisting the USDA was required to make cuts in all its programs, projects and activities.
“We regret the impact to counties and local governments,” he said in his testimony. “We followed the law.”
Majority Republicans on the panel were unconvinced. As the hearing room emptied over the course of the meeting, they took turns criticizing Bonnie and accusing the administration of making the cuts for political reasons on money already distributed. The committee displayed subpoenaed USDA and Office of Management and Budget emails indicating some uncertainty that sequestration cuts could be applied to the already distributed 2012 Secure Rural Schools funds.
“The legal analysis was made that it did not apply, the money’s already distributed,” Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R.-Wyo., said. “So this looks pretty heavy on the politics.” Lummis did not elaborate on her concern that political motives played a part in the decision.
In his statement to the committee Bonnie said the money was distributed in January 2013 to comply with the schedule requirements of the Secure Rural Schools Act payments. When President Barack Obama issued the sequestration order two months later, the funds were eligible for the cuts, Bonnie said.
Hastings closed the hearing, vowing to keep demanding information about the cuts.
“Until there is a guarantee that not one dime will be withheld from future payments, I will use every power I have in this committee to pursue this matter,” he said.
Before the hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the committee, criticized Republicans for even holding the meeting, calling it a waste of time. He also said sequestration was bad policy, but ultimately he “bitterly agreed” that the cuts were legally required.
Jonathan Palmer contributed reporting.