Ag Policy Blog

The Battle Over USDA and Its Direction Under Biden

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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While it's called the U.S. Department of Agriculture, much of the USDA budget is focused on nutritional programs. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., argued in an interview with the New York Times that Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, would change the direction of USDA to focus on hunger. (DTN file photo)

The New York Times reported Thursday that Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who was key to former Vice President Joe Biden getting the Democratic nomination for president, is weighing in heavily with the Biden team in favor of Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, for Agriculture secretary.

In an interview, Clyburn was also critical of former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who the Times reported is also being considered to return to the post.

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., another top contender for Agriculture secretary, stressed to the Times that she supports Biden's rural plan.

The battle over who will lead USDA could refocus the direction of the department. The NYT described the situation as "an unlikely fight is breaking out" over Biden's choice to lead USDA "pitting a powerful Black lawmaker who wants to refocus the Agriculture Department on hunger against traditionalists who believe the department should be a voice for rural America."

Clyburn's advocacy for Fudge is noted because he's not only the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, but also one of Biden's most important supporters in the Democratic primary, the Times reported. Clyburn endorsed Biden in the South Carolina primary, which pushed Biden from being an also-ran in the race to becoming the front-runner for the nomination he eventually won.

Clyburn stated in an interview with the NYT that he feels "very strongly" about Fudge. Fudge, who is also Black, chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition and also is considered a contender to potentially take over as chair of the full House Agriculture Committee as well. Clyburn stated it's time to change USDA to make it "the kind of department if purports to be," and pointed out that much of the USDA budget "deals with consumer issues and nutrition and things that affect people's day-to-day lives."

The Times article stated "The Agriculture job specifically is pinching Mr. Biden between two of his central campaign themes, which he repeated in plain terms this month in his victory speech: that he owes a special debt to African-American voters, and that he wants to be a president for all Americans, including those who didn't vote for him."

Rural America didn't exactly turn out for Biden in the election, despite advocacy efforts by Vilsack and Heitkamp to generate support for Democrats in rural areas. Not only did Biden not make gains in rural areas, but Democrats also lost ground in both the House and Senate because of rural support for President Donald Trump and Republicans.

Heitkamp, in the NYT piece, said Biden can pick someone who understands "the unique challenges of rural America and what needs to happen in rural America moving forward." Heitkamp said Biden would choose someone to implement his rural plan.

Clyburn said USDA seems "to favor big farming interests" over less wealthy people" whether it is small farmers or SNAP recipients. Clyburn also did not like the idea of "recycling" Vilsack for the job he held for eight years under the Obama administration. Vilsack did not criticize Clyburn in the piece, but said, "If there's something I can do to help the country, fine. But the president-elect makes that decision."

The NYT noted Fudge has other supporters for the position, including Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas. Other key Black members of Congress also back Fudge, including Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who is already leaving Congress to work in the Biden administration.

As DTN reported earlier in the week, three key unions also have endorsed Fudge for Agriculture secretary as well -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.…

DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom contributed to this report.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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