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Perdue Says He’ll Put a ‘Go-to Person’ in Charge of Rural Development

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told lawmakers he wants an active hand in rural economic development (an element of his reorganization of USDA), but he’ll put a “go-to person” in charge of running the programs. “That person will be Senate-confirmed in that area,” as an assistant secretary, said Perdue – a post that small-farm advocates say will be inferior to the undersecretary now in charge.

The USDA carries out its major duties (such as farm supports, public nutrition, and agricultural research) under the direction of undersecretaries. Assistant secretaries hold smaller portfolios.

When he unveiled the reorganization a week ago, Perdue created an undersecretary for trade; realigned oversight of farm subsidies, crop insurance, and land stewardship under one undersecretary; and abolished the undersecretary post for rural development. The rural housing, business, and utility programs, with more than 4,500 staffers and a loan portfolio of $216 billion, will become an agency that reports to Perdue. Farm groups welcomed the trade undersecretary office. Rural development has become the sore spot.

When members of the House Agriculture Committee asked about the future of rural development, particularly in view of administration proposals to eliminate rural water and sewer programs, Perdue repeatedly said rural affairs are being elevated in importance.

“I welcome the responsibility,” he said, describing rural development as “something I jealously wanted to be part of” after conversations with his predecessor, Tom Vilsack. “I can’t handle all that myself,” said Perdue. Day-to-day responsibility for rural development will be held by an associate “sitting next to me, with walk-in privileges,” he said, later elaborating, “We’re going to have an assistant secretary directly reporting to me who will be the go-to person.”

The 10-page USDA report to Congress on reorganization is silent on details such as an assistant secretary in charge of rural programs. The reorganization will take effect in mid-June, according to USDA.

Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, one of 15 groups that wants to keep rural development as one of USDA’s mission areas, said “if they intend to demote” rural development to an assistant secretary, “they need to have Congress change current law. They do not have the authority to do that single-handedly.”

USDA invited public comment on the reorganization in a Federal Register notice today titled “Improving Customer Service.” The comment period ends on June 14. The notice says the principles in President Trump’s executive order for reorganizing the government “provide the basis for taking actions to enhance and strengthen the delivery of USDA programs. The department will continue to work within the administration on the government-wide reform plan and additional reform efforts.”

To read statements by Perdue and House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway or to watch a video of the hearing, click here.

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