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A Road Bump, Maybe a Roadblock, for USDA Reorganization

Some of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s sweeping changes to USDA’s organizational chart will need a congressional green light, the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee said in a letter asserting the Senate’s advise-and-consent role in federal appointments. The committee leaders said Perdue cannot change the duties of his senior policymakers until Congress passes a law that codifies their new titles and responsibilities.

Chairman Pat Roberts and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the panel, wrote Perdue at the same time the committee cleared USDA nominees Bill Northey and Greg Ibach for a floor vote. Although the letter focused on Northey, the issue could apply to other USDA undersecretaries, the officials who serve one step below Perdue and put administration policy into practice. Northey was nominated for undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services but under Perdue’s organizational chart would be undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

It would be a dramatic change in duties. The new alignment could reignite fiery arguments whether the official in charge of crop subsidies can even-handedly run land stewardship programs. Perdue’s new organizational tree sprouts a branch for the new post of undersecretary for trade, lops off the undersecretary for rural development, and grafts, like shoots onto a stem, half-a-dozen agencies into new alignments.

Under the Constitution, “officers serving in Senate-confirmed positions created by law with accompanying designated duties may not be moved to a different office that requires Senate confirmation, unless the officer is nominated for the new position and receives Senate confirmation to that position,” wrote Roberts and Stabenow.

The committee leaders said “we commit to working with the department to advance legislation which provides clarity about the titles of the undersecretaries and their positions and duties at USDA…Until such clarity is available, we ask that the nominee, if confirmed, serve the mission area to which the individual was nominated.”

“Secretary Perdue has said before that he does not worry about nomenclature and titles,” said a USDA spokesperson. “Secretary Perdue is about getting the work done, and he is excited to get Bill Northey on board as soon as possible to support farmers and ranchers, and help with hurricane response.”

The Agriculture Committee letter was the second notable Senate objection to Perdue’s rearrangement of the organizational tree, which was sent to Congress in mid-May. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to maintain the office of undersecretary for rural development with a requirement for Perdue to fill the post.

The Agriculture Committee letter also could impinge on action by Perdue beyond redrawing lines of authority. A marriage of farm subsidy and conservation agencies is on the horizon, according to a farm activist. The combination would reflect Perdue’s plan for Northey to oversee both areas; in the past, stewardship was handled by a different undersecretary. Perdue has said farmers are put at a disadvantage if a USDA county office is short-handed, and he has lamented that producers have to go to different county offices for programs that affect the same farm.

Farm and agribusiness groups hailed Perdue when he unveiled the new organizational chart in mid-May because it created the job of undersecretary for trade, a long-held goal given the importance of farm exports in ag economy. Ted McKinney began work as trade undersecretary this month and took jurisdiction over an agency, the Foreign Agricultural Service, that would have been Northey’s responsibility in the past. The 2104 farm law created the trade undersecretary post but left it to USDA to sort out the undersecretary’s authority.

But activists said rural economic development, targeted for large cuts in the Trump budget, was short-changed with the loss of an undersecretary in charge. Instead, Perdue placed rural development agencies in his office under the eye of an assistant to the secretary, Anne Hazlett.

Congress and USDA worked for months on the 1994 reorganization of USDA.

To read the Agriculture Committee letter to Perdue, click here.

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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