Probe Finds White House Wanted to Make Sequestration as 'Painful as Possible' for Rural Schools

WASHINGTON -- A House Natural Resources Committee investigation has found that President Obama's Office of Management and Budget ordered that sequestration cuts be applied retroactively to funding for rural schools over the opposition of the Agriculture Department.

The committee's report released today, “A Less Secure Future for Rural Schools: An Investigation into the Obama Administration’s Questionable Application of the Sequester to the Secure Rural Schools Program,” detailed how last February the USDA had determined 2013 sequestration wouldn't apply to 2012 funds that had already been distributed in the program. The White House stepped in and overruled the USDA, though both agencies haven't turned over numerous subpoenaed documents that could reveal more behind the decision.

The Secure Rural Schools program helps provide rural counties with funds for teachers, schools, police officers, emergency services and infrastructure -- "necessary because the federal government had failed to uphold its century-old promise to actively manage our national forest to provide a stable revenue stream for rural counties containing national forest land," Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said in reference to the timber industry link.

The program dates back to a 2000 bill, which was extended in July 2012 for that fiscal year. The $323 million in funds were doled out to 41 states by the USDA in January 2013. But two months later, after sequestration went into effect, the Obama administration announced it wanted $17.9 million back -- prompting bipartisan backlash from governors and congressional representatives of the affected states.

"The Obama administration appeared intent on making this sequester as painful and visible as possible, and this was another example. Instead of working with Congress to make responsible cuts and reforms, the administration took the political opportunity to go after funds used to pay teachers and police salaries," Hastings said at a hearing on the report today.

The chairman expressed his "frustration and disappointment in the Obama administration for repeatedly stonewalling Congress and stalling our legitimate oversight efforts" -- ignoring requests for documentation and forcing the committee to issue subpoenas. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack turned down a request to testify, as did U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, USDA General Counsel Ramona Romero, and OMB Director for Budget Brian Deese.

The only witness sent by the administration was USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Bonnie.

Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said it was a case of "you create a bad law, the administration applies the bad law."

"It's nothing really to investigate here. But we can waste a couple hours on it instead of doing something proactive to try and figure out how we are going to better provide for counties, schools and economic activity in rural areas," DeFazio said.