- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2013

Even as it’s cutting food programs for poor women and children, the Agriculture Department is still spending money on housing for wealthy residents on Martha’s Vineyard and paying companies to run marketing campaigns for alcohol, pickles and jelly, according to a top senator who wants to see those priorities changed.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Congress’s top waste-watcher, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday saying that since the sequesters, the department has still spent $45,000 to help a West Virginia company market its Bloody Mary mix and sent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money to help vineyards and wineries rebuild websites or start wine festivals and “wine trails.”

The Oklahoma Republican also asked Mr. Vilsack to justify why the department had threatened to cut off food aid to 600,000 women and children under the sequester, but is still paying for free lunches for even wealthy children in Tulsa, Okla., under a summer program.

“While most Americans would support ensuring every kid has a nutritious meal, it makes little sense to be giving free meals to those not in need while cutting assistance to 600,000 women and children who rely on WIC for food and health care services,” Mr. Coburn said in his letter, referring to the Women, Infants and Children program.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Vilsack said they have received Mr. Coburn’s letter and are working on a response.

The budget sequester has slipped from the nation’s front pages as the dire consequences the administration had warned about have not yet come to pass. But agencies are still grappling with how to meet the cuts, which require deep trims to almost every part of basic government operations.

Agriculture officials say they have to cut about $1.9 billion from their spending because of the sequester, but they have vowed to try to keep basic services up and running. The department has used hiring freezes, has canceled some bonuses and has moved money around within accounts to try to maintain operations.

Mr. Coburn seemed particularly irked by the dire consequences Mr. Vilsack warned about in a letter to senators in February, when he said more than 10,000 elderly women could be kicked off of rural rental assistance, hundreds of thousands of women and children could lose their nutrition assistance, and wildfires could rage unchecked this summer.

Mr. Coburn offered a number of places the Agriculture Department might look at cutting before it goes into big programs such as WIC, pointing to the $45,000 grant to market the Bloody Mary mix; the Indiana Soybean Alliance’s $15,000 grant to study the feasibility of producing fish food in that state; or the $213,000 a small Virginia farm was awarded to grow more strawberries, which are turned into ice cream and jellies.

Mr. Coburn also questioned the department’s decision to designate all of Martha’s Vineyard, the Massachusetts island known as a vacation spot for the wealthy, as a rural area eligible for special Agriculture Department homeowner loans.

If borrowers default on their loans, taxpayers are on the hook for the mortgages.

Mr. Coburn said it seemed odd that wealthy homeowners could get access to loans, but the department had warned that sequesters could cut off rental assistance to “more than 10,000 very low income rural residents, generally elderly, disabled and single female heads of households.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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