Shutdown Catch-Up: The “Ag-Lag”

A partial shutdown, the longest in American history, ended on Jan. 25, reopening agencies and resuming services that fell far behind during their thirty-five day hiatus.

President Trump and House Democrats publicly battled from Dec. 22 to Jan. 25 over border security, particularly on the presence of a physical barrier, what some refer to as “the wall.” However, while partisan politics created a stalemate in D.C., real lives were impacted around the country as a by-product of the “wall-war.”

US government department agency logos

This particular shutdown saw major issues within the USDA, EPA, DHS, DOT, FBI, FDA, the State Department, the Coast Guard and even caused access and cyber-security issues on a few government websites.

(United States Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Food & Drug Administration, U.S. State Department, U.S. Coast Guard) Graphic by: Mia Tirado

The agricultural industry in the U.S. took perhaps the biggest hit of all. Despite the best efforts of those working for major agencies, key operations such as research, reports, data releases, loan and grant programs, payment processing and commodity outlooks were all put on hold while elected officials duked it out. While workers could be willing to labor for free during shutdowns, that alone does not mean the agencies have the capacity to operate normally.

“Farm service agencies were hit the hardest; not being able to provide the services they normally provide during those weeks,” says Tim Johnson, Senior Research and Policy Analyst at the Iowa Farm Bureau. “Trying to find money and recalling employees to get operational loans processed – that’s really hard during a shutdown.”

Riding out the storm

Most departments released statements about their struggles during the shutdown, and there was extensive coverage on a vast number of those problems. In particular, the USDA recalled employees or re-opened services three times during the shutdown, trying to keep up with facilitation programs and push deadlines for loans and grants back, but were still left scrambling.

“President Trump has instructed me, as Secretary of Agriculture, to craft a program that would protect farmers from unjustified retaliatory tariffs from foreign nations…” stated Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, in a press release on Jan. 8 to announce a USDA program deadline. “Meanwhile, I urge members of Congress to redouble their efforts to pass an appropriations bill that President Trump will sign and end the lapse in funding so that we may again provide full services to our farmers and ranchers.”

The program Perdue crafted was an extension on Market Facilitation Program deadlines, and only 15 days in, was the first effort made to limit agricultural problems during the shutdown. While Perdue cited the tariff battle with foreign nations, like China, Johnson says there is little correlation between the two and that these problems were due more to shutdown than negotiations.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of interconnectivity with the trade disruptions,” Johnson states. “Because these negotiations are already on-going, a lack of a shutdown wouldn’t make those talks progress more quickly, and an absence of the tariff dispute wouldn’t have ended the shutdown any sooner.”

Eight days after extending the market facilitation deadline, the USDA announced it would reopen Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices for “limited services” during the shutdown. This initial reopening was for processing payments from 2018, continuing expiring financing statements and opening mail for priority items.

As the shutdown eclipsed the one-month mark, Perdue decided to reopen the FSA for a few more days for “additional administrative services,” which mostly dealt with loans, insurance, facilitation and assistance programs.

“The FSA provides vital support for farmers and ranchers and they count on those services being available,” Perdue said in a press release on Jan. 22. “We want to offer as much assistance as possible until the partial government shutdown is resolved.”

Playing catch-up

When the shutdown ended, a three-week negotiation period, which concluded on Feb.15, was put in place, giving agencies time to assess how far behind they were. For the USDA and FSA, there was no shortage of obstacles, as reports and data releases —usually put out weekly —were now over a month behind.

“The schedule of a lot of the data people use to make planting decisions is behind,” Johnson states. “That can mess up people’s entire spring; the data has been released, but it’s so late that it’s hard to know what’s coming.”

While smaller farm agencies, like the Iowa Farm Bureau, and farmers themselves worry about catching up, Perdue showed confidence in the ability to get back on track, and continued to support Trump’s shutdown motive in his Jan. 25 press release.

“Meanwhile, we will prepare for a smooth reestablishment of USDA functions,” expressed Perdue. “There will now be sufficient time for Congress to come to an agreement with the President on his pledge to protect our national security by securing our southern border with a reliable, effective barrier.”

Trump did end up signing a deal in time, although that deal provided only $1.375 billion for wall-funding of his requested $5.7 billion. With an immediate, second shutdown avoided, the USDA, and others, are now in a scramble to catch up on time-sensitive reports and processing procedures.

The USDA’s goal is to catch up on loans and grants by May of 2019. Data-reports are swiftly coming up to speed, with two being released on a weekly basis. The Market Facilitation Program put in place by Perdue, aimed at combating repercussions of China Tariff war during the shutdown, is well on its way to paying out to farmers, though sources within the USDA said this week that the program “could fall short” of its maximum payout-budget of $9.6 billion.

Graphics by Mia Tirado.


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