Perdue Heads Into 2018 With Only Half of His Executive Team

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue started work in April as President Trump’s first nominee to the USDA. The former Georgia governor has been short-handed ever since and could finish his first year in office before his executive team is confirmed by the Senate.

The eight appointees who serve one step below Perdue (the deputy secretary and seven undersecretaries, each overseeing one of the USDA’s operating arms) are the officials who turn administration policy into action on the ground. Without the decision-makers, the pace slows down and there are fewer chances for farm groups to exchange ideas with the USDA or to get a hint of how impending initiatives will affect producers.

“That’s a problem in and of itself,” says NFU government relations director Barbara Patterson, referring to the administration’s slow pace in nominating undersecretaries who need Senate approval. “It’s also a problem at the (agency) administrator level.”

Senate action on one nominee for undersecretary, Bill Northey, to run farm support, crop insurance, and land stewardship programs  was blocked in November in oil-state retaliation against the ethanol industry. Perdue wryly says he might wear a “Free Bill Northey” T-shirt in protest. Sam Clovis withdrew his nomination for undersecretary for research because of questions about his work as cochair of the Trump campaign but kept his job as the White House’s political operative at the USDA.

That leaves Perdue with three senior executives on the job – Steve Censky, deputy secretary; Ted McKinney, undersecretary for trade; and Gregory Ibach, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs – and five vacancies. Besides Northey’s post, arguably as powerful as the deputy secretary, they cover meat safety, ag research, public nutrition, and the Forest Service.

“I’m eager to get Secretary Perdue a full team at the Agriculture Department,” says Senate Ag Chairman Pat Roberts. “The Senate Agriculture Committee has acted swiftly on each nomination.”

Perdue was Trump’s final cabinet nominee, and there is repeated muttering about whether the USDA has the White House’s attention.

Perdue created McKinney’s post as the first step in shaking up the USDA’s organizational tree. He met resistance on Capitol Hill to his elimination of the undersecretary for rural development.

Roberts and Senator Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on Senate Ag, suggested pointedly that Perdue should ask Congress for a statutory change in Northey’s title and duties.

The Iowan was nominated as undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, which includes part of McKinney’s portfolio, but would be undersecretary for farm production and conservation under Perdue’s plan. Until now, conservation programs have been split between two under-secretaries. Northey would receive sole control.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.


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