Peel back the layers of any sequester story, and you'll get some tears.
In perhaps the most convoluted back-and-forth yet regarding whether the Obama administration has overstated the effects of automatic spending cuts, the Department of Agriculture says an employee's email has been misinterpreted and taken out of context by congressional Republicans and news reporters.
The story began with a leaked email which seemed to indicate USDA had told one of its workers to make the sequester cuts as painful as promised, dismissing his request for leeway to spread the cuts out and avoid furloughing his employees.
Republican Reps. Tim Griffith and Kristi Noem reportedly circulated the email, which came from a USDA field worker named Charlie Brown, who works for the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in Raleigh, N.C. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was asked about it Monday before the House Agriculture Committee.
Brown's email seemed to indicate that USDA shut down an appeal for budgetary leeway, telling him that USDA had already told Congress the sequester would mean cuts to services, and "you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be."
Rep. Griffith posted the entire email on his House website.
USDA released a statement that "Several reports yesterday misrepresented a USDA effort to explain the impacts of budget cuts to an employee in USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)" and explaining the saga in detail.
An agency official told USDA's side of the story in a conversation with ABC News on Wednesday. An official said that USDA not only granted the requested spending leeway, it had already planned to avoid the furloughs.
According to an email chain obtained by ABC, a USDA budgeting official relayed Brown's request that cuts to aquaculture services - that is, help in farming fish - be spread out over 24 states, instead of eight. When the agency wrote back to Brown, an official told ABC News, USDA actually told him that it already planned to spread the cuts out over 24 states, and that in effect USDA intended to do what he suggested. This move will, in fact, avoid furloughs to APHIS staff, the USDA official said.
Here's how USDA responded to Brown's inquiry:
We have gone on record with a notification to Congress and whoever else that "APHIS would eliminate assistance to producers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry, unless they provide funding to cover the costs." So, it is our opinion that however you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be.
In other words, USDA says, Brown had already gotten his wish, according to the official. He thought the cuts would happen over eight states, and he wanted to spread them out over 24. USDA told him it already wanted to do that. For some reason, a budgeting official warned Brown not to contradict the impact of avoiding furloughs and spreading cuts as he seems to have desired.
Where the story gets even stickier, though, is that USDA insists this has nothing to do with the sequester. The "notification to Congress," the official told ABC, was for the agency's FY2013 budget request.
That request never really amounted to anything. USDA had planned to cut funds, the official said, but it never got the chance to, as Congress continued to fund USDA at previous levels through a continuing resolution. Now that the sequester is happening, those advertised cuts (and their "impact") will apparently go into effect as part of USDA's sequester plan. Still, the official said, USDA hasn't advertised the relevant "impact" to Congress in sequester-related terms - it hasn't told Congress about them at all since last year - rendering the imputation of a political motive spurious.
That's USDA's side of the story: a misinterpreted email, leaked and taken out of context, leading to erroneous news reports that President Obama has falsely amplified sequester pain in a ploy to raise taxes. Based on the email chain, it checks out. A USDA official relayed Brown's question - asked on a conference call - about "spread[ing] the aquaculture cut in the ER to all States instead of the specific 8 Aquaculture States."
Brown has not returned requests for comment from ABC News, seeking to clear all this up. In his leaked email to colleagues, he specifically referenced a question about the sequester - not about FY2013 budget cuts. More would become clear with information from APHIS on the cuts, their implementation, and how USDA's response was received; APHIS directed ABC News to the main USDA office, in response to an email sent from ABC to Brown.
Meanwhile, the USDA's ominous-sounding warning not to "contradict" the impact of spending cuts has resonated with journalists and Republicans on the hunt for signs that the administration has refused to defray some of the sequester's most deleterious impacts as political gamesmanship continues in Washington.
If nothing else, the controversy has spread awareness of aquaculture.