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USDA secretary nominee Sonny Perdue pledged to be an effective salesman for American agriculture across the U.S. and around the world during his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday. But his toughest sell for the Department of Agriculture may be within the Trump White House.
Perdue testified before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee and answered questions from a dozen or so senators. He is expected to receive the committee’s recommendation and be approved by the full Senate. He’s the last nominee in Trump’s initial Cabinet selections to have a confirmation hearing.
The questions at the hearing were short, to the point, and often went something like this: Will you explain to President Trump why rural and agriculture are important to the rest of America?
Perdue said he was game, though he had far more to say about agriculture specifically than rural America generally.
“My goal is to be a strong and tenacious advocate for agriculture,” Perdue told the committee. “If I’m confirmed, I’m going to get under the boards and make some room to work for agriculture and consumers.”
The basketball reference is apt for this time of year. What’s less certain is whether Perdue’s elbows are up to the task of creating room for the USDA on the Trump administration’s priorities.
Trump’s budget plan calls for a 21% percent cut in discretionary spending at USDA. Much of the reduction would come from Rural Development, which supports a variety of community development programs like water-treatment-plant construction, broadband buildout, small business loans, and loans and grants to electric and phone utilities.
“I also have some concerns about the budget,” Perdue said. But he said he thought there was room for compromise and he pledged to work with senators to improve funding for USDA.
“I think the president understands that a many of his votes came from [rural areas],” he said.
Perdue was a mild salesman for what little is known about the president’s agenda for USDA. He said he had no input on the budget proposal released last week. And he told the committee he would do all he could to address many of their policy concerns. That may be difficult, as many of those concerns read like a punch list of Trump’s campaign-trail talking points.
Immigration: Trump promised a hard line on immigration, while committee members emphasized the need for flexibility to accommodate agricultural workers, about half of whom are immigrants, said New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D).
“We really rely on immigrant labor for fruit, vegetable, and dairy,” she said. “I hope you can talk to President Trump and [Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly] about the effect of immigration enforcement priorities … on agriculture.”
Free trade: Trump has said the U.S. wasn’t getting a fair deal from free trade agreements. He says pacts like NAFTA needed to be renegotiated. Steve Daines (R-Montana) said he was concerned that possible retaliation from other nations might affect U.S. ag producers. Perdue was bullish on ag exports without giving specifics about trade agreements.
Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) said he wanted Perdue to change the direction of the free-trade discussion. “We’re looking to you to help resurrect that conversation about trade,” he said. “There was too much negative discussion about trade during election.”
The Size of Government. The Trump budget proposal calls for cutbacks in USDA conservation programs and closure of some of the department’s regional service centers. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) asked whether Perdue would increase staff to cut down on backlogs in issuing permits to farmers.
Perdue also assented to support the work of the National Resources Conservation Service, another program targeted for cuts in the Trump budget. He said he agreed with the need for USDA to remain involved in opioid addiction treatment programs that started under the Obama administration. Those programs were initiated with the help of Obama’s White House Rural Council, which Trump has not mentioned resuming.
The Ag Committee is responsible for drafting the 2018 farm bill. Senator Stabenow and others said she wanted to enlist Perdue as an ally in that process. They need help explaining the importance of agriculture and rural to the president, she said.
Senator Gillibrand also asked Perdue to go to Upstate New York and hold hearings on dairy pricing.
“Farmers can’t rely on it,” she said. “Insurance programs are not working. We need top-to-bottom reform.”
Perdue, who grew up on a dairy farm, said he had no “philosophical” problem with dairy price reform. “Senator, I will come [to New York] if you promise not to make me milk any more cows,” he said.
Stabenow also brought up milk pricing, saying ag groups like the Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union are asking for stop-gap measures that could go into effect even before the 2018 farm bill. She asked Perdue to “provide dairy farmers with reliable tools” for smoothing out price volatility, the way crop insurance helps other commodity farmers hedge against difficult market conditions.