"What taxpayers need to know is that every single department of government has now been charged by the President to review in detail the nature of contracts that we’ve entered into in order to do what American families are doing, " Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters Wednesday. "American families are sitting down today and trying to decide, how do we save money, how do we eliminate unnecessary spending — their expectation is the government does the same."
The White House brought Vilsack and Janet Napolitano, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, before the White House press corps to highlight cost-cutting measures the Obama administration has started implementing.
The secretaries made it clear that they were trying to trim their budgets, but in another way their commitment served to highlight other ways the administration is avoiding some of the "tough choices" in budgeting that President Obama insists his budget makes.
Vilsack, the former Governor of Iowa, said that officials at his agency have started teleconferencing instead of traveling for meetings, and that they had identified more than $18 million in savings that can be saved from modernizing their financial systems.
More pointedly, Mr. Vilsack said his agency was reviewing procurement and consulting contracts, and had canceled a $400,000 consultancy contract with Stan Johnson, "who had a close connection with the previous administration," Vilsack said.
"A substantial amount of money was spent for foreign travel," said Vilsack, who knew Johnson in his former capacity as vice provost of Iowa State University. "To be honest with you, we saw very little, if any, value to the USDA," Vilsack said. "The career folks who watched this process unfold in the last waning days of this last administration were very concerned about the process, the connections and relationships between people receiving this half-a-million-dollar contract, and what they intended to do with the resource, which the career folks felt was unnecessary and inappropriate. They made a very strong and powerful case to me that the process wasn’t followed as it should have been; their input was not valued as it should be."
Asked if Johnson might sue, resulting in costly litigation, Vilsack said, "I feel fairly confident on this one that we will prevail, and I’d be surprised if it’s questioned."
Napolitano said officials of her department were considering fleet management, use of contract employees, employee travel and cross-training as ways to save taxpayer dollars. She also said $17 million had been identified as a possible cost savings to combine plans to enlarge and improve points of entry being formulated by both the U.S. General Services Administration and Customs and Border Protection.
Additionally, the DHS science and technology unit worked with the Secret Service, said Napolitano, a former Governor of Arizona, to digitize more than 9,000 different types of ink samples.
"Not only will that allow us to improve our investigation of criminal and terrorist activities, but it reduces matching time for prints from days to minutes," Napolitano said.
But Vilsack indicated that he would oppose further efforts to eliminate or reduce agricultural subsidies beyond those President Obama targeted in his budget.
"This is a time when it’s very important for us to maintain the safety net as we look at a number of producers," he said. "I know that I receive probably a letter or two a day from Ag groups indicating the stress; commodity prices have fallen just as stock prices have fallen. And so it’s important and necessary for us to maintain an appropriate safety net."
When White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked how President Obama could continue to talk about making tough decisions on budgeting while also pledging to sign an omnibus spending bill he’s expressed reservations about because of the more than $8 billion of earmarks in the bill — a bill he’s been encouraged to veto because of the excess spending by both Republicans such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Democrats such as Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Evan Bayh of Indiana — he punted.
The omnibus spending bill, which is currently making its way through the Senate, is "the culmination of the legislative business from the previous fiscal year and the previous Congress," Gibbs said. "The president is greatly concerned — and I think that shows in the efforts that he’s taken to illuminate through transparency and accountability — wasteful spending and earmarks in legislation…The president believes that we can work with Congress to reduce wasteful spending in the future."