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Meat inspectors avoid the sequester chopping block
The round of tax hikes and program cuts known as the sequester is a mindless, soulless machine whose only purpose is to bulldoze anything standing between it and a balanced budget.

Unless you're a meat inspector. Then it's business as usual.

While nearly a million federal workers will be forced to stay home without pay for as many as 22 days this year, CNNMoney notes that Congress voted Thursday to spare Department of Agriculture's meat inspectors the same fate. Part of the reasoning behind the measure is that USDA inspectors have been lauded as heroes amid the ongoing European horse meat scandal. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the inspectors have some deep-pocketed supporters in the meat industry who aren't afraid to play a game of slaughterhouse politics.

The inspectors were originally scheduled to take 11 furlough days at the rate of one day a week from July through September. The sequester's $85 billion in budget cuts that started on March 1 had to come from somewhere, and inspectors' paychecks were soft targets.

A whole lot of meat-loving folks really didn't like that and sent their people to Washington to lean on Republican politicians unwilling to give ground. The National Chicken Council flew in chicken processors from states including Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and California to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Tyson Foods (TSN -0.19%) took similar action to prevent work stoppages.

All of the above insisted that inspector furloughs would shut down packing plants on days the inspectors stayed home. The Department of Agriculture itself forecast that the furlough program would lead to $10 billion in losses and cut meat production by 2 billion pounds, chicken production by 3 billion pounds and egg output by 200 million pounds.

The bad news -- for Republicans -- is that it gave a huge victory to Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who sponsored the amendment that nixed inspector furloughs. The good news is that the move was paid for by slashing $30 million from maintenance of USDA buildings and $25 million from a program to upgrade school kitchen equipment.

Even if the money couldn't be found elsewhere, the meat industry offers plenty of reason to believe it would get its way on the issue in any case. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, meat and poultry processors have spent $28 million on lobbying each year since 2008. Without those inspectors, there's a lot less cash to spread around Capitol Hill.
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