Perdue Confirmed

New Ag Secretary Faces Challenges

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Sonny Perdue as the next secretary of agriculture on Monday evening. (Courtesy photo)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Sonny Perdue as the next secretary of agriculture Monday evening, after months of delay in the face of challenging times for farmers and ranchers.

Much has been made about the delay in getting the former Georgia governor confirmed, as Perdue is among the last cabinet members to get an up or down vote by the Senate.

Considering most of President Donald Trump's cabinet nominees have faced a tight vote, Perdue received broad support in an 87-11 vote. The last agriculture secretary to receive less-than-unanimous support was Richard Lyng in 1986 in Ronald Reagan's administration. Lyng received two negative votes.

"Rural America has been waiting long enough for a leader at USDA," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said before the vote.

"I'm confident Gov. Perdue has the experience to lead. I'm confident Gov. Perdue will be a strong partner on the next farm bill. He understands the challenges farmers are facing. Now more than ever we need the next secretary of agriculture to be a champion."

In announcing her support for Perdue, Stabenow released a report showing how proposed budget cuts will hurt rural America, including potential harms to clean water and cuts to agriculture research and Extension programs, http://bit.ly/….

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is also a farmer, said that during this recent planting season, he had a lot of time to think about the importance of Perdue's nomination.

"I have high expectations of him," Tester said. "Commodity prices are low across the board. At the same time, we've seen rising input costs. The big guys in times like these try to sweep up farmers."

Tester said he would like to see Perdue address the issue of consolidation in agriculture.

"This isn't the first time rural America stood nose to nose with adversity," Tester said.

The long-anticipated Perdue confirmation has been held up as Perdue has been working to divest from some of his business interests, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told DTN last week.

Add to that the overall slow process in approving Trump's cabinet nominees, he said, and it appears as if agriculture is on the new administration's backburner.

Perdue is scheduled to attend a White House swearing-in ceremony then speak to USDA employees on Tuesday morning, following Monday's vote. He also is expected to participate in a White House forum with Trump and 15 farmers from around the country. The president will sign an executive order that, among other things, will urge federal agencies to reduce regulations on agriculture.

There is some concern about how proposed USDA budget cuts could affect agriculture and what, if anything, Perdue would do to defend his department.

The Trump administration has proposed slashing USDA's discretionary budget from about $22.6 billion to $17.9 billion. Those cuts would come from stopping funding for clean water programs, cutting county-level personnel, and reducing some USDA statistical functions and rural business services.

Tester said he wants to see the next agriculture secretary push back on those cuts.

"The White House's budget will be a nail in the coffin for rural America," he said. "The next ag secretary needs to fight for the budget."

In addition, Tester said he'll ask Perdue to play an "active role" in the next farm bill.

"The farm bill should be a tool for small producers as well as for large producers," Tester said. "USDA has a lot on its plate. Gov. Perdue is a stand-up man. I'm more than willing to give him a fair shake. I expect Gov. Perdue to hit the ground running."

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he knows Perdue understands the plight of farmers and ranchers in this time of low commodity prices. In addition, Roberts said Perdue will play an important role in expanding trade and cutting government regulation.

"Year after year, they produce the safest, most abundant food supply," he said. "Our producers are facing tough, tough economic times. They need a strong market for what they produce. On top of all of this, farmers are being burned by regulations from across the federal government. It is endangering producers from staying in business.

"Now more than ever, agriculture needs a voice and a champion at the highest levels of government. Perdue fills that role," Roberts said.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley