Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Thursday that the committee will focus in the short term on the nominations for positions at the Agriculture Department that President Donald Trump has sent forward.
Roberts and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., later announced a confirmation hearing Oct. 5 for Bill Northey to be undersecretary for production agriculture and conservation and on Greg Ibach to be undersecretary for marketing and regulatory services.
Roberts also told reporters he hopes to hold a committee vote off the Senate floor on Trump’s nominations of Steve Censky to be Agriculture deputy secretary and Ted McKinney to be undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs.
Roberts said the committee still needs more paper work to consider the nomination of Sam Clovis to be undersecretary for research education and economics.
Roberts made the comments to reporters at the conclusion of a hearing on rural development and energy programs. Roberts said it was the last of the hearings on farm bill titles but that the committee will hold a hearing on regulatory reform and possibly on other topics before writing the bill.
Senators Press on Rural Development
During Thursday's hearing, Anne Hazlett, assistant to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on rural development, came under pressure from several senators over whether she will push for money for programs that President Donald Trump proposed eliminating, and on whether the USDA will formally weigh in with the Federal Communications Commission on fixed vs. wireless broadband internet access.
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The interactions occurred at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on rural development and energy programs in the next farm bill.
Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted that rural development is one of the reasons he has stayed on the Agriculture Committee, and said it is vital to find “new resources” for the community facilities program to combat the opioid drug addiction crisis.
Leahy then asked Hazlett, “Are you going to push for providing them?”
But Hazlett responded only that “you have my commitment to steward the resources that are provided.”
Leahy asked the question a second time, but Hazlett repeated her first answer.
“To steward them you are going to have to get them,” Leahy responded, and Roberts added that he and Leahy are “united on this.”
Leahy also said he was disappointed in Trump’s proposal to eliminate rural housing programs, and asked Hazlett if she would work with the committee to create a sustainable rural housing strategy.
Hazlett replied that she would work on that strategy, emphasizing innovation and leveraging resources.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he had been “hearing a lot” from constituents about a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into whether it will consider wireless broadband internet access equal to fixed broadband, which would mean it would consider wireless broadband “good enough” and would not have to try to make sure that difficult-to-serve areas get fixed line service.
Van Hollen noted that the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has told the FCC that wireless broadband, which is generally considered inferior to fixed service, should be considered separately from fixed broadband.
Van Hollen then asked whether the Agriculture Department will weigh in or file comments on the FCC inquiry.
Christopher McLean, acting administrator of the USDA Rural Utilities Service, was on the panel, but he initially passed the question to Hazlett, who said she was not aware of the issue and passed the question back. McLean then said that, while USDA is not a petitioner, Secretary Sonny Perdue has a “dialogue” with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who is also a member of Perdue’s Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.
The exchange between Van Hollen and the government witnesses was one of several times that the role of the FCC in rural broadband came up during the hearing.
For one community to have broadband and another one not to have it “is tantamount to one group of children having textbooks and others not,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said her test of a community’s future is whether it has water and whether it has broadband capability to stream Netflix.
Besides internet access, the hearing focused on the opioid addiction crisis and the role that USDA’s community facilities program plays in providing treatment facilities to combat it.
A panel of private-sector witnesses also testified in favor of continuing rural development value-added, water and wastewater and renewable energy development programs.
Sen. Bob Casey, R-Pa., asked Hazlett about the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which he said had used $30 million to get a $190 million investment that saved or retained 5,000 jobs in Pennsylvania. Hazlett said the initiative is an “exciting” example of a public-private partnership.
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