The government’s latest jobs figures reveal a burst of hiring last month that pushed unemployment figures to a four-year low.
According to the Labor Department, U.S. employers added 236,000 workers to their payrolls in February. The hiring spree drove the U.S. unemployment rate down two-tenths-of-a-point to 7.7 percent.
Separately, the government reports America’s massive trade deficit rose in January to $44 billion, up more than 16 percent from December.
U.S. exports dropped 1.2 percent to $185 billion, reflecting significant declines in sales to Europe, China and Brazil. Imports rose 1.8 percent to $229 billion as crude oil shipments surged 12 percent.
Many economists, however, expect the trade gap to narrow in the months ahead due, in part, to continued gains in U.S. energy production.
That development; sustained recovery in the housing sector; and an improving labor market suggest the economy could expand in the months ahead, despite higher taxes and government spending cuts.
But in sworn testimony this week, the Obama Administration’s “Point Man” on Agriculture said the sequester leaves him no choice but to furlough key federal employees.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA "Despite the challenges, despite the difficulties, despite what mother nature throws, we still do indeed have the greatest farmers and ranchers in the country, and the result of that, I think, is we can be confident that regardless of the challenge, rural America is up to it."
Speaking before the House Committee on Agriculture this week, USDA chief Tom Vilsack was scheduled to address the state of the rural economy. But the sequester’s across-the-board cuts quickly dominated the testimony. Several USDA programs could see a loss of funds, with food safety hit particularly hard, as inspectors and their support systems account for 87 percent of the food safety budget.
Mandatory furloughs could force meat and poultry plants to stop production, as products cannot be sold without approval from USDA inspectors.
Leading up to the March 1 deadline, the White House had sought to replace budget cuts with tax increases. Preparing for a worst-case scenario, the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo days before the sequester took effect, which instructs:
“Agencies' planning efforts must be guided by the principle of protecting the agency's mission to serve the public to the greatest extent practicable.”
Rep. Frank Lucas: R – Oklahoma: "Wouldn't you agree that providing the essential inspection services that protect public health and provide wholesome and affordable food is consistent with that directive?"
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "It is, Mr. Chairman, so long as there are adequate appropriations to provide that assistance...no matter how you slice it, no matter how you dice it, there is nothing you can do without impacting the front line inspectors. You don't have the luxury as you do in normal circumstances of transferring money because there is no money to transfer based on the way the sequester is structured."
Rep. Collin Peterson: D – Minnesota: "So if you had flexibility to move things around, it might not be as big of an issue with the meat inspectors?"
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "We would obviously recognize the important role of mission first and we would do what we could to make sure that the most important missions were completed and done. We don't have that capacity today. That's why this is I think recognized by all as bad policy."
One of the more contentious moments of the hearing came during an exchange between Vilsack and Congressman Steve King. The Iowa Republican took Vilsack to task over what he called a lack of planning before the continuing resolution, authorizing the sequester, was signed into law.
Rep. Steve King: R – Iowa: "I would ask you if you would be willing to, and just ask you to submit to this committee, your recommendations on what you'd like to see written into the CR to give you the flexibility necessary so that the meat industry no longer has to be concerned about the backup that could be caused by furloughs of meat inspectors."
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "Well the answer to that question is relatively easy, Congressman. Just give us the resources."
Rep. Steve King: R – Iowa: "That's not the option, Mr. Secretary as you well know."
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "Well see now that's a choice that you all are making."
Rep. Steve King: R – Iowa: "That's a choice that was actually recommended by the president and it is the current law. I'm suggesting this..."
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "You can change the law."
The pair continued to spar over meat inspections through King’s allotted time. According to Vilsack, USDA will be forced to furlough inspectors up to 12 days before October, unless Congress intervenes.
Rep. Steve King: R – Iowa: "We've reached an impasse on that, Mr. Secretary."
Vilsack cautioned that the longer lawmakers wait for a resolution, meat and poultry producers could experience severe short-term impact. While a continuing resilient rural economy is forecast, Vilsack reiterated the need for certainty via sensible plans to stop the sequester, and complete the comprehensive Food, Farm and Jobs Act, better known as the Farm Bill.