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A Sea of Issues Awaits Perdue When He Walks in the Door at USDA

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is hours away from becoming U.S. agriculture secretary, with the Senate expected to confirm the nomination by a solid majority this evening. Perdue will enter the job on a tide of goodwill and risks inundation by a flood of issues from budget cuts and agricultural trade to expanded subsidies for cotton and dairy producers.

Barring last-minute hitches, the Senate is set to vote on Perdue at 5:30 p.m. ET in its first roll call after a two-week recess. He was the last of President Trump’s original cabinet nominees, announced on the day before the inauguration, and would be only the third agriculture secretary to work in agriculture as an adult, according to backers. A veterinarian by training, Perdue operated agribusinesses before and after two terms as governor, from 2003-11.

When he arrives at the USDA administration building, Perdue will have the latest starting date for an agriculture secretary in an incoming administration since USDA became a cabinet department — more than three months after inauguration day. None of the top-level policymakers who assist the secretary have been nominated yet, so he will rely on the relative handful of Trump transition officials sent to USDA in January and the civil servants who know the details of departmental operations.

The USDA budget may be the first issue for Perdue, although his chances for a meaningful impact may be limited. Congress faces a deadline of Friday to pass a spending bill to keep the government operating for the rest of this fiscal year. Congressional negotiators already have decided to keep most USDA line items on track with the levels set in the expiring bill, according to farm lobbyists.

But the spending bill also may be used as a backdoor way to legislate major changes in farm policy, says the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a small-farmer advocate. The cotton industry hopes to include a cottonseed subsidy in the bill, and the dairy groups want to modify the insurance-like Margin Protection Program so that payments are more likely. The changes could cost billions of dollars and increase the baseline for the farm bill to be written in 2018. At the same time, land stewardship programs could be cut.

The White House called in March for a 21% cut in discretionary spending at USDA for fiscal 2018, which opens October 1. Farm groups hope Perdue can argue against dramatic cuts at USDA. The administration has told agencies to draft plans for cutting their workforces as part of a reorganization and downsizing of the federal government. Iowa State University political scientist Mack Shelley says Perdue will be a latecomer to those discussions. “Oh, I’d say the hope is about zilch” that Perdue can change the administration’s course, Shelley told Harvest Public Media.

During his confirmation hearing a month ago, Perdue said he will be “USDA’s chief salesman around the world.” Farm-state senators said he also should alert the rest of the administration to the importance of exports to farm income. Farm groups worry that exports will be an early casualty if trade talks blow up. Trump wants to rewrite NAFTA; Canada and Mexico are the No. 2 and No. 3 customers for U.S. exports.

There have been rumors that Perdue will take the oath of office soon after an affirmative Senate vote. The White House says the swearing-in could be Tuesday, when the president also is expected to host a roundtable discussion with farmers and sign an executive order to protect and provide relief for rural America. As a candidate, Trump pledged regulatory and tax relief for farmers.

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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