Ag Policy Blog

Still Waiting on Those USDA Nominations

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A week ago, it was a lock-solid deal that USDA top Senate-confirmed staff would be nominated by the White House sometime this week. As of Friday afternoon, those nominations had not come.

"Key USDA Positions Reportedly Set," "Field of Candidates for USDA Posts Becoming Clearer," "Important USDA Positions Reportedly Set," and the one that never gets old," Local Native in Running for USDA."

One senior agricultural pontificator declared, "you can almost go to the bank" that at least three positions being filled this week.

It was all supposed to go down on Wednesday. The White House would send out the names as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was testifying before the House Agriculture Committee.

I emailed the American Soybean Association to make sure I had an updated photo and bio of the group's CEO, Steve Censky, who is considered the top candidate for deputy secretary, the No. 2 post at the department. The deputy secretary is considered as the guy who actually steers the ship on day-to-day operations at USDA.

Also, with the USDA reorganization, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey was pegged as the likely nominee for undersecretary of farm production and conservation. Ted McKinney, Indiana's agriculture director, was listed as undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural services.

While we've focused heavily on names, the big question is "when?" When will these names come from the White House? And then when will they actually get a confirmation hearing and a Senate vote?

I talked to one farm lobbyist this week who seemed pretty certain about the names, but the lobbyist highlighted the problems with time. Even if all three were named immediately, confirmation hearings for any of the USDA deputy and undersecretary positions possibly would not happen until mid-summer.

This has to do with the same kind of delays that hold up all nominees, which is mainly about going through all of the paperwork and background requirements for such subcabinet positions that any nominee would face. It takes time to complete the process and get the paperwork to the Senate committees.

In 2009, President Obama named Kathleen Merrigan as USDA's nominee for deputy secretary on Feb. 23. Merrigan's confirmation hearing was held April 1 -- 37 days later. Merrigan was confirmed a day later and was officially sworn in April 8, 2009. Along with Merrigan, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on Jim Miller as undersecretary of farm and foreign agricultural services and he was confirmed on the same day as well.

So a swift floor vote can happen once paperwork is received and a confirmation hearing happens. Ideally, one or more of the USDA nominees would get a floor vote in the Senate before lawmakers take a break for a long July 4 break. In a worst-case scenario, the confirmations for the top deputies at USDA might not happen before the Senate takes its August recess from July 31-Sept. 4.

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