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Clovis Is Most Controversial USDA Pick in 15 years

Facing a chilly reception from Capitol Hill, Sam Clovis is the most controversial selection for a senior USDA post since Iowa agribusinessman Tom Dorr in the opening days of the George W. Bush administration. Democratic Senators Chris Coons of Delaware and Pat Leahy of Vermont have joined the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, in questioning Clovis’ qualifications for an agriculture undersecretary post that includes serving as USDA’s chief scientist.

“Mr. Clovis is a former Trump campaign adviser and conservative radio talk show host with no background in the hard sciences, nor expertise in agriculture policy,” said Coons. In a statement, Coons cited the statutory requirement for the undersecretary for research to be a scientist with specialized or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics. Clovis is a climate-change skeptic, said Coons, adding, “I believe that science, not baseless opinion, should underpin our decisions when it comes to our nation’s agriculture policy.”

Leahy, a member of the Agriculture Committee, which will vote on Clovis, said in a tweet, “#AntiScience Know-Nothingism continues to ooze outward from the heart of Trumpism.”

Most nominees for USDA subcabinet posts attract little attention or opposition. Criticism of Clovis began in mid-May, when word first leaked that the cochair of Trump’s presidential campaign and lead Trump operative at USDA since inauguration day was in line for a senior post. Clovis is a college professor, but his degrees are in political science, business administration, and public administration. During the campaign, Clovis was the Trump intermediary with farm groups.

There were rumblings of controversy, too, before Bush nominated the acerbic Dorr to be undersecretary for rural development. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, the Democratic leader on the Agriculture Committee, tenaciously opposed Dorr, saying he lacked the judgment, outlook, and temperament for the rural development job. As examples, Harkin cited comments by Dorr suggesting that the western European heritage of farmers in northwestern Iowa “enabled them to succeed,” and Dorr’s brushes with USDA regulations. In 1995, Dorr’s farming operation had to repay roughly $17,000 in crop subsidies. He later repaid an additional $17,000 for exceeding payment limits.

In the face of Senate opposition — the nomination did not garner 60 votes to prevent a filibuster in 2002 — Bush put Dorr into office as a “recess” appointee from August 2002 to December 2003, and renominated him for undersecretary, winning confirmation in July 2005. Altogether, Dorr spent nearly eight years at USDA, beginning in 2001 as a senior consultant and serving as undersecretary, whether by recess appointment or Senate confirmation. He later became president of the U.S. Grains Council, which promotes farm exports.

By coincidence, Clovis and Dorr are from northwestern Iowa and have ties to the same college. Dorr has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. Clovis was an economics professor at Morningside when he joined the Trump campaign. Outside of college work, he ran a conservative talk radio show and ran for the Senate. In 2013, the Sioux City Journal said the Kansas native “has something of a rock star quality with Siouxland tea party people.” Clovis is an Air Force veteran. Dorr spent time in the Air National Guard.

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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