New U.S. ag secretary ready to get to work

Sonny Perdue’s nomination was never in doubt, but it was not unanimous.  |  USDA photo

Sonny Perdue confirmed as the final appointment to Trump’s cabinet and faced with cuts and a pending farm bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sonny Perdue smiled April 24 as he sat in the Senate gallery with his family watching the vote that finally confirmed him as the new U.S. secretary of agriculture.

The next morning he greeted the staff at U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters with a warm and rousing introductory speech, showing the folksy and avuncular approach that made him a popular Georgia governor.

“It’s about work,” he said to USDA staff about their mission for farmers.

“It’s about getting stuff done.”

But Perdue’s optimism and energy will face immediate tests as he works to get his own staff hired, grapple with President Donald Trump’s proposed 21 percent USDA budget cut and prepare to help House and Senate agriculture committees come up with the next farm bill.

“It’s a long time coming,” said Michael Conaway, Republican representative from Texas, talking to members of North American Agricultural Journalists about Perdue’s belated confirmation.

Senate agriculture committee Democratic minority leader Debbie Stabenow felt the same.

“There have been unfortunately too many delays in getting the nomination moved forward,” she told NAAJ members.

“When you look at the fact that the secretary of agriculture was the very last person to be nominated, even after there had been a secretary of labour (nomination) twice … before the president finally felt it was time to have a leader in the USDA.”

Perdue was Trump’s last cabinet nominee sent forward, a delay that has left the massive department leaderless at top levels, even as the Trump administration has abandoned the Trans Pacific Partnership, suggested it may abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement and directly attacked Canada’s dairy industry, all issues that greatly affect U.S. farmers.

The department is also facing a brutal budget reduction proposed by Trump with Perdue only now able to sit at the cabinet table to offer input from the inside of the administration.

His ability to do that, however, will rely partially on about 200 senior officials that can only now be selected and put forward for confirmation. As a result, he will be short on advisers for weeks. 

Those to-be-appointed senior USDA staff will also be immediately required to advise Congress on the 2018 farm bill, the key legislation covering farming and agriculture that will soon go into development.

“That’s very important to us as we write a farm bill,” Stabenow said about the USDA staff. “We are dependent on the expertise … that we are asking from the department.”

Perdue’s confirmation, once it went forward, was never really in doubt. He not only received universal Republican praise, but most Democratic senators also supported him, including some like Stabenow who spoke warmly in his favour.

But it was not unanimous, which is unusual for an agriculture secretary nomination. The last agriculture nominee who received less than 100 percent of the votes cast was Richard Ling in 1986, and he was the first non-unanimous nominee in history.

The 87-11-1 vote was described as “a strong sign of bipartisan support” by Stabenow and “a big vote” by Senate agriculture committee chair Pat Roberts, but the negative votes from Democrats were seen as a signal of displeasure with the Trump administration in general.

While some moderate Democrats such as Stabenow and Minnesota’s Al Franken were visibly pleased to vote in favour of Perdue’s confirmation, Vermont senator and one-time Democratic presidential contender candidate Bernie Sanders strode forward in the Senate chamber to jab a downward finger to mark his negative vote.

Stabenow told NAAJ that most confirmation votes have split on party lines, so getting 87 votes was a sign of general support, a point also made by Roberts.

“We got over 80 votes. I was hoping that we would get 90, but that didn’t happen,” said Roberts.

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