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Perdue Heads to Hill, USDA Nominees Near

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2017 - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this week makes his first appearance before lawmakers since taking office, and he’s expected to defend his department’s reorganization plan that includes eliminating the undersecretary for rural development.

 Perdue, who testifies Wednesday before the House Agriculture Committee, also is likely to be asked what he can do to help cotton growers and dairy producers. The two sectors lost a bid to get assistance included in the fiscal 2017 budget agreement enacted at the end of April.

Perdue’s reorganization plan would create a new position of undersecretary of trade, and House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway said he looks forward to that office “playing an active role in gaining additional market access for our products, while working to ensure that our trading partners honor the commitments they have made.”

Conaway promised that the committee would “take a very close look at each of the proposed changes, and this will be one of many important topics we cover when the Secretary appears before the committee next week.”

Also this week, the Senate could take up the nomination of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to be ambassador to China. The agriculture sector is counting on Branstad to help advocate on the behalf of U.S. farm exports. The administration announced an agreement last week to allow imports of cooked Chinese chicken in return for China’s agreement to import U.S. beef.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Branstad’s nomination last week on a voice vote.

Meanwhile, the White House is expected to soon name a slate of nominees to key positions at USDA. As Agri-Pulse first reported early Friday, the CEO of the American Soybean Association, Steve Censky, is expected to be named deputy secretary, the person who normally manages day-to-day operations in the department.

Iowa Agriculture Commissioner Bill Northey, a former president of the National Corn Growers Association, will be named the first-ever undersecretary for the newly configured mission area of Farm Production and Conservation, sources say. Indiana Agriculture Director Ted McKinney would be the first undersecretary of trade.

Sam Clovis, who advised the Trump campaign on agriculture policy and is now a senior advisor to Perdue, is likely to be named undersecretary for research, education and economics.

Clovis is a former economics professor at Morningside College, but his possible nomination is getting some criticism from progressives. His doctorate from the University of Alabama was in public administration.

Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, issued a statement over the weekend saying Clovis lacked the scientific background for the research position. “If the president goes forward with this nomination, it’ll be yet another example of blatant dismissal of the value of scientific expertise among his administration appointees,” Salvador said.

All of the USDA positions will require Senate confirmation.

Perdue’s reorganization plan won bipartisan praise for establishing the new trade position, which was required by the 2014 farm bill. The undersecretary of trade will control the Foreign Agricultural Service and head a committee that will work with other USDA agencies that have trade responsibilities, including the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

A second part of the plan, to eliminate the undersecretary of rural development, has raised concerns among lawmakers, who fear that would downgrade the department’s rural development agencies. Perdue argues that the plan, which appeared to catch many lawmakers by surprise, would actually elevate the importance of those agencies, since they would report directly to the secretary.

A third portion of the plan creates the new Farm Production and Conservation mission area that would include the Natural Resources Conservation Service along with the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, did not comment on the plan.

Written by Philip Brasher for Agri-Pulse Communications. 

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