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Senate Panel Votes to Keep Top USDA Rural Development Job

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved unanimously a USDA-FDA funding bill that rejects President Trump’s proposals to slash spending on rural development, crop insurance, and food stamps. In the first major congressional disagreement with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the $145 billion funding bill overrides his recent elimination of the slot for an undersecretary in charge of rural economic development — and directs the administration to fill the job.

“I look forward to the president putting up a nominee, and I hope he does,” said Senator Jon Tester, sponsor of the language to reinstate the undersecretary’s post, with an $896,000 budget for salaries and expenses. “Rural development will keep people from leaving rural America.” The undersecretary will be an advocate for rural America, said the Montana Democrat.

Perdue said he elevated rural development in importance by making it an agency that reports directly to him. “Rural America will have a seat at the table and walk-in privileges from day one,” he said. But an array of farm, local government, community development, and environmental groups said rural areas needed the full-time attention of a senior USDA executive. The 2014 farm law authorized Perdue to redraw USDA’s organizational chart as part of creating an undersecretary for trade, a goal of farm groups.

“By fully funding the position of RD undersecretary and directing Secretary Perdue to nominate someone to fill the position, the Senate has taken a decisive stand for rural and food-producing communities,” said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. USDA’s Rural Development wing is composed of three agencies with 5,000 employees running 40 programs, said the coalition, and it “deserves to be managed by a full team with an undersecretary at the helm.” The senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said she looked forward to working with Perdue to confirm a nominee for the job.

Perdue told The Hagstrom Report that he regards the debate over the leadership post to be a matter of nomenclature and that Anne Hazlett, who he hired as assistant to the secretary for rural development, would do a good job with either title. At an Appropriations subcommittee hearing in mid-June, Perdue asked for time to show that his arrangement can produce results.

During its bill-drafting session, the Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote two amendments that are a familiar part of the funding bills: a ban on horse slaughter and a requirement for special labeling of transgenic salmon.

New Mexico Senator Tom Udall sponsored the language against horse slaughter. “This is a product that is not safe to be on the market,” he said, because horses may be treated with veterinary medicines that are not allowed on livestock farms. The horse holds special status in the West, he said, and slaughtering horses for human consumption is “something Americans want no part of.”

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski sponsored the amendment for FDA labeling of GE salmon. “Just say no to Frankenfish,” she said. The fishery industry is a major employer in Alaska, and consumers should be able to buy salmon meat from sea-caught fish if they want, she said. The FDA approved AquaBounty’s salmon in November 2015, and the Massachusetts company plans to bring the fast-growing AquAdvantage fish to market next year.

The bill also included “significant updates” to the Margin Protection Program, a subsidy program for dairy farmers, said Vermont Senator Pat Leahy. Farmers will have a greater incentive to enroll in the insurance-like program and to choose higher and more meaningful levels of coverage, he said in a statement. Participation in the program has been low, and it has provided minimal payments.

To read the Senate Appropriations Committee summary of the USDA-FDA bill, click here.

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