Not in Their Home Districts

Published Feb 6, 2012. By Shawn Zeller. In Congressional Quarterly.

Members of Congress have spent much of the past year arguing about how much to cut the federal budget, but now that the Obama administration is proposing to downsize offices in their districts to save money, they’re having second thoughts.

Although the biggest worry is the Pentagon’s proposal last month for a new round of base closings, lawmakers are also fighting plans by the Agriculture Department (USDA) and the financially strapped Postal Service to shutter facilities.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last month that he is going to close 259 offices in the United States and seven overseas for a savings of $150 million a year. The downsizing would include the Farm Service Agency, the government’s liaison to farmers, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which combats diseases.

In December, the Postal Service said it plans to close 252 of its 461 mail-processing centers as part of $3 billion in cost cutting. The plan would also slow delivery of First Class mail and eliminate 28,000 jobs.

Last week, South Dakota’s three-member delegation called on Vilsack to explain his decision to close Farm Service Agency offices there. “Streamlining the federal government must be done, but it must be done fairly and equitably,” says Sen. John Thune , who is Republican Conference chairman.

A number of lawmakers have chimed in. Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York protest that the closures will make it more difficult for farmers to access USDA services. Vilsack says that most of the facilities he’s closing are small and that other nearby offices can pick up the slack.

Rep. Brian Higgins , a New York Democrat, was more creative in his pitch to keep open a mail-processing facility in Buffalo. He said last month that the Postal Service is violating the National Environmental Policy Act because closing the William Street Processing and Distribution Center will require using more mail trucks, resulting in 24,683 tons of additional carbon dioxide emissions each year.

Groups such as the Concord Coalition that want to put the government on a sounder fiscal footing aren’t surprised by the protests. “Congress wants to have it both ways,” says Josh Gordon, Concord’s policy director. “They make the administration make the decisions on cuts, and then they complain when they don’t get their way.”