Washington Insider-- Monday

Confirming an Administration

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

USDA To Reinstate Animal Welfare Standards On Organic Meat

USDA will be reinstating standards for animal welfare on farms that produce organic meat, standards that were withdrawn by the Trump administration. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA will “reconsider the prior Administration's interpretation that the Organic Foods Production Act does not authorize USDA to regulate the practices that were the subject of the 2017 Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule,” including meaningful outdoor access for organic chickens and other animal welfare improvements.

The plan had been on public review at the Federal Register, but has since been removed (along with scores of other items on the public inspection list) due to the Juneteenth Holiday.

Presumably, it means the organic rule and others will be placed back on public inspection Monday and likely would be published Tuesday in the Federal Register.

China Focus on Commodity Prices Continues

China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) on Thursday unveiled new rules for the management of commodity price indices “as part of its ongoing efforts to curb unreasonable price swings and maintain stable prices in the commodity market,” according to a report on the announcement by China Daily.

The new rules take effect August 1 and require those providing price indices to be “independent of the direct stakeholders in the commodity and service markets covered by the index, and the basic information of the index providers, the index compiling plan and other necessary information should be fully disclosed,” the report said, noting that authorities “can conduct compliance reviews and take disciplinary measure for noncompliance.”

Meng Wei, spokesperson for the NDRC, said the agency will “also work with relevant parties to release batches of (reserves) in a timely manner for some time to come, to increase the market supply, ease the strain on enterprises costs and guide the prices to return to a reasonable range.” She noted that efforts to far to address unreasonable and rapid commodity price rises this year “have taken the heat out of market speculation” and that prices for items like iron ore, steel and copper have started to return to more-normal levels.

But she also issued what can be read as a clear warning to market participants: “The NDRC will closely monitor changes in the market, strengthen regulation of both futures and spot markets and maintain the normal order of the market.”

Washington Insider: Confirming an Administration

The process of building a new administration takes time, especially when you consider there are some 4,000 politically appointed positions that need filled each time a new administration takes office in Washington.

Of those 4,000, there are more than 1,200 that the U.S. Senate has to confirm. The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service have been tracking the nominees for about 795 of the 1,200 positions requiring Senate confirmation -- include Cabinet secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsels and scores of sub-Cabinet roles that are key in the process of operating the government.

As of mid-June, President Joe Biden has seen 67 confirmed into those positions, putting him ahead of President Donald Trump, but still lacking the pace seen under the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W Bush.

As for Cabinet nominees, Biden actually moved quicker than either Trump or Obama as they took nearly a month longer to get officials confirmed into those roles. And, the Post notes, “Biden is the first president in decades to secure those picks without a failed nominee, despite an evenly divided Senate.” All of Biden's Cabinet picks were confirmed before April.

But it hasn't been a controversy-free run for Biden, either. The White House withdrew the nomination of Neera Tanden to head up the Office of Management and Budget was withdrawn after facing bipartisan opposition. She is the highest profile pick that has not made it through, but the White House opted to pull the nomination rather than have it be defeated in the Senate.

There are several agencies where there have been no nominations made. At the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, only Katherine Tai has been confirmed out of at least four positions that require Senate confirmation. Sarah Biachi's nomination to be a deputy USTR was sent to the Senate May 27 and nomination of Jayme White as another deputy USTR was sent forward June 9. Both had been announced as nominees April 16.

But no nominee has either been announced or sent to the Senate for the combined post of Deputy USTR and representative to the WTO and key for agriculture, no nominee as the chief U.S. ag negotiator has been announced. But Trump did not send the nomination of Gregg Doud to that role until June 19, 2017, and the Senate Ag Committee favorably reported out the nomination October 24 of that year. It took until March 1, 2018, before Doud was confirmed to the role.

At USDA, Tom Vilsack was announced as Biden's pick as Agriculture Secretary December 8, with the nomination sent forward January 20. The Senate Ag Committee reported out the nomination February 2 -- the same day as his confirmation hearing -- and the Senate confirmed Vilsack to the role February 23.

Trump named Sonny Perdue as his pick to run USDA on January 17, 2017, with the nomination sent to the Senate Ag Committee March 9 and he was reported favorably out of the panel March 30. He was confirmed April 24, 2017.

But few have joined Vilsack at USDA so far, with only Jewell Bronaugh confirmed May 13 as deputy secretary, the number two spot at the agency.

So far, Robert Bonnie has been nominated to be undersecretary for farm production and conservation, with his nomination reaching the Senate April 27. No hearing date has been set. But barring a major setback, he should be in the role quicker than his Trump predecessor, Bill Northey, whose nomination took until September 2017 to be announced and sent to the Senate and the Senate Ag Committee reported his nomination out October 18 of that year. But he did not win full Senate okay until February 27, 2018, as holds were placed on his nomination.

But there has been no one named for undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs so far in the Biden administration, a post that Vilsack declared an important one during his confirmation hearing. Ironically, that post was created in the 2014 Farm Bill while Vilsack was heading USDA for the Obama administration, yet he never filled that role.

Ted McKinney held the post in the Trump administration after being nominated June 2017, referred to the Senate Ag Committee in August, with the panel favorably reporting out his nomination October 2 and the Senate cleared him October 3.

The Biden administration has named Jennifer Moffitt as undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, a seemingly key post in this administration given their focus on market concentration. Her nomination was sent to the Senate Ag Committee April 28, a day after it was announced. But no action beyond that has taken place.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has not been a pick for assistant secretary for civil rights so far by the Biden team. But that post went unfilled for the four years Trump held office.

Sometimes the slowness is getting individuals willing to take the role. Other times, it has been the first or even second choices not being able to make it through the confirmation process. And several Trump nominees that had been lingering at the end of the term of Congress that started with Trump's time in office were sent back to the White House after not being acted on. And some of those nominations were never sent forward again to the Senate.

So we will see. Getting an administration fully staffed can take typically years, at least relative to those positions that require Senate confirmation. But those positions are key for the operations of a host of USDA functions that directly affect farmers so the progress on this front needs to be closely watched, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN's Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

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