Does agriculture secretary’s memo on GOP budget violate Hatch Act?

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Questions are being raised after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a politically tinged internal memo to employees last week.  The memo complains about a House Republican spending plan that cuts the agency’s funding.

“The bottom line is that [the] House budget resolution hits USDA and its programs in a very hard way,” Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa, wrote in the April 4 memo obtained by The Daily Caller.

Vilsack’s portrayal of the Republican budget to the agency’s employees in a negative light could be troublesome if the memo amounted to campaigning against Republicans. The Hatch Act bans campaign activity by federal employees.

Comparing President Obama’s budget to the GOP spending plan passed in the House, Vilsack wrote, “The President’s budget included a slight increase for USDA’s discretionary budget that funds our organization and some of our programs.”

The law also prohibits presidential appointees like Vilsack from asking subordinates to engage in campaign activities.

But the Washington Free Beacon, which reported the existence of the email Monday,  cited a law professor who said the email raises concerns but isn’t a clear-cut Hatch Act violation because Vilsack did not explicitly ask his employees to support Democrats.

“I would watch these memos,” Hatch Act expert Richard Painter told the publication. “These memos are probably going to push the envelope more and more.”

The USDA maintains there’s nothing wrong with the email.

“Secretary Vilsack has made it a priority to communicate regularly with employees about the federal budget and other topics that impact their day-to-day lives, and in all cases, he communicates in a factual, non-partisan manner that is consistent with Hatch Act rules,” spokesman Justin DeJong told TheDC.

In the email sent to “USDA Employees,” Vilsack explained the reason for the memo by saying, “I want to keep you advised on budget issues as they unfold.”

In 2010 Ana Galindo-Marrone, the chief lawyer for the government’s Office of Special Counsel, explained that the “law says we retain a right to retain our opinions, but we can’t engage in political activity on duty.”

“At the end of the day, what the Hatch Act is intended to do is make sure our advancement in the federal service is based on merit and not political affiliations, and that our provision of services to the public is not done in a partisan way,” she said.

Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack’s budget memo:

Dear USDA Employees,

I want to keep you advised on budget issues as they unfold. In February the President released his 2013 fiscal year budget. The President’s budget included a slight increase for USDA’s discretionary budget that funds our organization and some of our programs. The President’s budget, while more than our budget this year, would still be $3 billion less than our budget for the 2010 fiscal year. Bottom line – under the President’s budget things would be tight and we would have to continue on our path of belt tightening. Our efforts under the Blueprint for Stronger Service would continue and allow us to manage the change brought about by tight budgets.

The House of Representatives, prior to their spring recess, approved their budget resolution that begins to set their priorities for the 2013 fiscal year budget. Overall the House took three actions that impact USDA.

First, their budget resolution provided for government wide discretionary spending of $1.028 trillion which is $19 billion below the level previously agreed to with the Senate during the debt ceiling negotiations of last year.

Second, the budget resolution essentially holds defense spending constant, which means that non-defense discretionary spending will bear the brunt of the cuts. OMB estimates that non-defense spending would be cut by $1 trillion over 10 years which would translate into an average cut of 5.4% in the 2013 fiscal year and a 19% cut in 2014 fiscal year levels.

Third, the House budget resolution seeks to avoid the automatic spending cuts required by the budget control act passed as a result of the debt ceiling negotiations. Again, the House held defense steady and shifted the burden of the cuts to non-defense spending. The budget resolution directs the Agriculture committee to reduce the deficit by $8.2 billion in two years, $19.7 over five years, and $33.2 billion over ten years. The Agriculture committee has yet to decide how to reach these levels.

The bottom line is that he House budget resolution hits USDA and its programs in a very hard way. The Senate has yet to indicate the specifics of the budget for next year, although there are indications we will know more by the end of this month.

As I have said on many occasions the budget challenges we face are unprecedented. It is part of the reason why we must build an improved USDA through cultural transformation and our work to improve administrative services as part of the Blueprint for Stronger Service. I am proud of our efforts to date in keeping down travel, supplies, and conference expenses. While the work to find administrative efficiencies and office consolidations required difficult decisions, they allow us to hopefully keep ahead of the process and allow us some freedom to decide how best to deal with cuts. I encourage all of us to aggressively proceed with the Blueprint for Stronger Service effort. It will make the department more efficient and over time more effective. I will continue to keep you advised as the budget discussions unfold.

Thank you for your continued service to USDA and the people we serve.

Tom Vilsack

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