Washington Insider - Friday

Vacancies in Key USDA Positions

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

India to Allow Imports Of US Poultry

India has now made changes to its import requirements that will reopen the market to imports of U.S. poultry, according to a report by Bloomberg. India has amended its health certification requirements to allow the imports, officials said at a briefing last week. Further, India officials this week downplayed the potential impact the imports could have on the India poultry industry.

"The import of U.S. poultry products has not found any favor in the Indian market," India Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu told the Hindu Times this week. "It is unlikely to undermine the domestic market. These are frozen products which are likely to reach a small segment of the domestic marketplace and this may not be more than 5 percent. We in the commerce ministry are committed to ensure fair trade which creates win-win for our local industry."

He confirmed talks were progressing at that point, but it appears the matter has now been resolved. The WTO in 2016 ruled against India's limits on imports of U.S. poultry over bird flu, finding it was not consistent with India's WTO commitments. USDA Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agriculture Ted McKinney is currently in India, likely as part of finalizing these details.

USDA's Perdue Touts Regulation Actions by Administration as Key

The focus by the Trump administration on removing onerous regulations addresses one of farmers' top concerns, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in opening remarks at USDA's Outlook Forum near Washington, DC. The top three concerns that farmers related to Perdue as he has toured parts of the country were regulation, trade and a reliable and legal workforce.

Perdue focused attention on regulation, noting the Trump administration was going after the "vermin of over-burdensome regulation." On trade, he acknowledged the uncertainty around the NAFTA 2.0 negotiations, but assured the crowd President Donald Trump will "strike the best deal for the American economy, and that includes agriculture." On the reliable and legal workforce issue, Perdue called for a revamp of the H2A program, calling it "cumbersome, convoluted" and said "frankly, it doesn't work for producers."

Washington Insider: Vacancies in Key USDA Positions

Well, the ag sector’s most important concerns these days include trade policy and preparation for the coming farm bill debate. However, Food Safety News is reporting that there is another concern in the background, “400 days into [the current] administration four top USDA jobs remain vacant, it says.

These are significant positions, FSN says, and asserts that after the Secretary of Agriculture, they are likely among the most important jobs at USDA. They include prominently the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, the official that runs the U.S. Forest Service with 40,000 employees and responsibility for the administration of 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands that include 193 million acres of land.

The second key vacancy is the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics— the Department’s chief scientist with oversight for a $700 million budget for research facilities and support for more than 100 land-grant universities.

The list also includes the Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, a job that oversees distribution food assistance topping $100 billion to 78.4 million people and oversees nutrition and dietary programs. Food programs account for 71 percent of USDA’s budget, FSN points out.

The fourth vacancy in the FSN spotlight, Under Secretary for Food Safety, the federal government’s top food safety official who is responsible many things ranging from world food standards to oversight of USDA’s $1 billion Food Safety and Inspection Service and leader for the 8,100 inspectors at more than 6,400 processing and slaughter establishments for meat, poultry and egg production in the U.S.

In fact, FSN reports, top jobs are going vacant across the federal government “due to a combination of factors.” Senate Democrats have been slow in letting the president’s appointments come to floor votes, the group says, and the administration is not sending up as many nominees as it could.

FSN cites the Partnership for Public Service for the comment that there are about 1,200 presidential appointments that require Senate confirmation. In collaboration with the Washington Post, the Partnership is tracking 636 “key positions requiring Senate confirmation” and posting the results online. So far, only 267 appointees are in place.

Another 142 formal nominations are waiting for Senate action and two additional nominations are awaiting confirmation including those four top USDA jobs. The White House has yet to nominate 225 of the “key” positions identified by the Partnership.

Four of the 13 USDA positions that require the Senate’s consent have won confirmation, including the Secretary, Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky; Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Gregory Ibach; and Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney.

The President has nominated four others to serve at USDA that are awaiting confirmation. These include General Counsel Stephen Alexander Vaden; Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Naomi D. Earp; Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations Kenneth Steven Barbic; and Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services William Northey.

The President nominated a candidate for one of the four “top” vacant jobs last July--retired Air Force Col. Samuel Clovis Jr. to be Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics. But, that nomination attracted considerable criticism and was withdrawn. Critics focused on Clovis’ lack of credentials to be USDA’s “chief scientist.”

In addition, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has held up a vote on Northey over renewable fuels issues since last year.

The President named both Northey and Vaden in 2017 but Earp and Barbic were only recently appointed. Earp is a former Chair and Vice Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George W. Bush. Barbic was senior director of federal government affairs for Western Growers, a produce group.

The fact that other federal departments are in the same boat does not make it any easier for Secretary Perdue at USDA, FSN says and notes that the Senate and House Agricultural Committees are moving aggressively on the 2018 Farm Bill without much in the way of restraints under the new two-year budget agreement.

However, until Secretary gets more Under Secretaries confirmed, Secretary Perdue is going to have to continue relying on USDA civil servants, FSN thinks. It calls the President’s fiscal year 2019 budget, which begins Oct. 1, “protective toward food safety programs at USDA and the Food and Drug Administration.”

However, the group notes that USDA is into its fifth year without an Under Secretary for Food Safety and calls that “one of the longest running for a major office.” Civil servants are holding down temporary appointments to run both the office of the Under Secretary and to administer USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. FSN points to rumors that such an appointment is near, but says that “those rumors are almost as old as the vacancy.”

Well, the vacancies FSN has identified are important, normally high-profile jobs, and in most administrations are quite active in farm-bill debates, especially since whatever programs the Congress authorizes, USDA will be responsible for managing them. It will be important to the sector that the administration nominate qualified, effective people to work with the Congress in this important role. This is a debate producers should watch closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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