State Offices Remain Active, Not USDA’s Website

10/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

Nonessential functions of the federal government may be shut down, but Pennsylvania’s state agricultural activities are up and running.

The closure of the federal government has had a “really minimal effect on the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,” said Jay Howes, a deputy secretary with the department.

None of the department’s contracts with USDA and FDA depend on additional appropriations, so they can continue as usual. Because the USDA and state have kept meat inspectors on the job, the shutdown will not threaten food safety, Howes said.

PDA and other state offices reviewed how the shutdown would affect them last week. Besides the occasional canceled meeting with federal staffers, “it’s business as usual,” Howes said.

“To the extent we have the ability, we’d be glad to try and troubleshoot” farm issues in USDA’s absence, he said.

Chuck Gill, news coordinator for the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, said the college is in a “stay-tuned, wait-and-see kind of situation.”

Federal funding for much of the college’s grant work is awarded quarterly rather than as part of the currently contested legislation, meaning Penn State researchers can proceed as usual. Applications for federal grants could be slowed down, though.

Penn State students are the ones hit hardest by the shutdown right now, Gill said. Some classes use data from the USDA website for class projects, but those datasets are inaccessible for now because USDA has taken down its website.

An extended shutdown could be cause for concern, but “it’s a little too early to tell precisely” what will happen, Gill said.

USDA’s decision to block its entire website with a placeholder message has set off something of a controversy.

“USDA’s total website shutdown goes far beyond the response of other federal agencies and seems to be part of an effort to make people feel the effects of the shutdown,” Pete Kasperowicz wrote in The Hill.

Most federal websites have posted a notice that they will not be updated, but they still allow users to browse existing material. By contrast, only a few stray pre-shutdown USDA pages can be found online.

On the subject of the website, the shutdown contingency plan from the USDA Office of Communications simply says, “Timely updates to the website will stop, thus valuable agricultural reports and materials will not be available to (the) agricultural economic community and the agriculture and consumer publics.”

While many people have seen the website closures as vindictive attempts to make the absence of federal employees as annoying to the public as possible, there may be security reasons for the closings.

“If the technical operations staff who keep these machines running are not allowed to work, then it might make sense to shut the machines down, rather than running the risk of encountering software or hardware failures that could (perhaps) lead to the dissemination of faulty information that might mislead users of the system,” Adam J. Lee, a computer science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said in an email.

If network security staff are furloughed, hackers could have an easier time exploiting any flaws the website might have, he said.

Lee cautioned that it is impossible to know an organization’s reasons for having its servers on or off.

A sampling of USDA’s contingency plans revealed little about what would happen to the department’s servers and the people running them during the shutdown.

The Farm Service Agency said that contractors who handle cyber security and infrastructure for essential personnel will remain at work.

The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration said that workers who handled Web servers were to stay on the job, along with several other groups. If those groups did not provide adequate support, however, GIPSA planned to shut down its operations.

Most agencies did not explicitly mention networks or websites in their plans. The contingency documents said that the various USDA organs would create plans to keep records safe during workers’ absence.

Most USDA activities, including crop and market reports, grant projects, disaster funding and crop research, are suspended until the shutdown is over.

A handful of programs are staying open for a variety of reasons.

Meat inspections are considered essential to food safety. Phytosanitary certification and other programs are funded by user fees. Outside contractors can continue construction work because their activities are already funded and do not involve government workers.

Workers will still care for research animals and propagate biocontrol insects whose populations would be costly and time-consuming to re-launch after a shutdown.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his top staff will also remain at work.

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