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USDA Is Short of Leaders

Sonny Perdue had the latest starting date of any agriculture secretary in USDA history – 13 weeks after President Trump took office. It looks like history will repeat itself. Perdue says it will be fall, or later, before he assembles the team of top-tier executives who convert administration policy into action on the ground. 

“He’s got a huge, huge operation to run. You just can’t know it all,” says National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. NFU was part of a powerhouse bloc of farm groups to write President Trump to appeal for faster action on USDA nominees. It was one of the first times the ag sector, a factor in electing Trump, expressed frustration with the administration. “It is impossible to pilot such a large and complex agency without a team of powerful and talented people at the helm,” the groups said.

When the farm groups wrote the White House at the end of June, Perdue was the only USDA official nominated by the administration who took office on January 20. Usually, the secretary is assisted by a deputy secretary, who oversees day-to-day matters, and seven undersecretaries, one for each of USDA’s operational areas such as trade, farm supports, and meat safety. “Months of sustained low prices mean rural America is struggling,” says National Association of Wheat Growers Chief Executive Chandler Goule. “It’s time to get his top policy advisers in place.”

The slow-as-molasses pace was government-wide, according to the Congressional Research Service. In his first five months in office, Trump sent to the Senate far fewer civilian nominees than his four predecessors, and the 50 Senate confirmations were less than one third of the average for a first-term president since 1989. 

“The business of USDA continues uninterrupted with the capable assistance of career employees,” says a Purde spokesperson. Lobbyists say there are practical limitations. When the top offices are vacant, it is difficult to discuss problems or get a decision on a question of policy, they say. Career employees are experts on how USDA programs work but commonly defer to the political appointees, who embody administration philosophy, when a choice must be made. “They don’t do the politics,” says Johnson, nor do they hobnob with the lawmakers who write the laws and approve the budgets. 

Farm groups fear that, short on policymakers now, USDA will not be adequately prepared when it’s time to write the 2018 farm bill. House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway says he may act as early as this fall or winter. Congress typically takes the lead on the farm bill but relies on USDA for advice on how various provisions would play out.

Perdue acted on his own to redraw USDA’s organizational tree and to create a new slot for the undersecretary for trade, a long-held goal of farm groups. He followed up with designation of career employees as acting undersecretaries for the revised portfolios. The acting undersecretaries work in coordination with Trump’s so-called beachhead team who arrived at USDA on inauguration day. The temporary liaisons have had a longer tenure than expected.

While Perdue has expressed frustration at the slow pace of nominating and confirming his team of executives, he said in June that no issues are piling up or are unresolved because of the vacant top-tier jobs. “I’m tired of working 22 hours a day,” he said.

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