Ag Policy Blog

Cruz Keeps Holding Northey Nomination Hostage

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Sen. Charles Grassley got what has become another obligatory question on Tuesday in his weekly press call with Iowa agriculture reporters.

What's the latest on Bill Northey's nomination?

If you don't know much about this situation, let me bring you up to date. Bill Northey is Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture since first elected in 2006. A Republican, Northey has won two re-elections in Iowa with roughly 62-63% of the vote. On Sept. 1 of last year, after months of speculation, Northey was officially nominated by President Donald Trump to be USDA undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation.

Northey was unanimously voted out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Oct. 19.

Then a U.S. senator put a hold on Northey's nomination. Northey's nomination wasn't held up by "obstructionist Democrats," but by a member of President Trump's and Bill Northey's own party, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz sent a letter on Nov. 14 to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, also a Republican, explaining the rationale for blocking Northey's nomination. Cruz wanted a meeting at the White House to discuss the Renewable Fuels Standard.

“I have placed a hold on the nomination of Bill Northey to be the undersecretary for farm production and conservation until and unless we secure the aforementioned meeting where we can bring diverse interests together to try to find meaningful short-term solutions while setting the stage for longer-term policy certainty,” Cruz wrote in his letter.

Cruz actually got a meeting at the White House with senators from ethanol-producing states and Trump administration officials. He still hasn't released his hold.

Grassley told Iowa reporters he spoke with Cruz on the Senate floor last week. Grassley acknowledged he did not get far.

"We're proceeding with other approaches I don't think I want to talk about right now," Grassley said.

Grassley and Sen. Joni Ernst, also an Iowa Republican, have noted Cruz keeps moving the goalpost.

Cruz wants a cap on ethanol Renewable Identification Numbers at EPA, which Grassley said is a non-starter. "My position is that's going to destroy the ethanol industry." Grassley countered with changes to the 15% ethanol market for summer sales that would end the high use of RINs. But Cruz doesn't want to deal.

It turns out that it is hard work to find out exactly what is the longest Senate "hold" on an agency nominee by a senator from the same party. Holds have been used by senators for decades to game policy positions, such as efforts by one senator to block every Air Force nominee in late 1990s in a battle what Air Force base should house C-130 fuel tankers.

Holds aren't an official action by a senator, but more of a custom. In fact, the majority leader doesn't have to go along with a senator's wishes on a hold. If the majority leader moves ahead with a motion to consider a nominee, a senator could choose to filibuster the nomination. That means putting Cruz back in front of a microphone on the Senate floor to stop all action until he's done talking, unless Cruz opts not to filibuster at all.

We haven't discovered what kind of precedent Cruz has set with his hold against a well-liked, unanimously advanced nominee from his own party nominated by a president from his own party. We can say, however, that Cruz's actions effectively ensured Bill Northey's nomination at USDA will take longer than any similar USDA nomination from the Obama administration in 2009.

During the111th Congress from 2009-2011, President Barack Obama sent 347 nominations for executive departments to Congress. Of those, 293 were confirmed while 16 withdrew and 38 nominations were returned. Of those confirmed, the median number of days between nomination and confirmation was 52 days.

At USDA in Obama's first year, 13 nominees were confirmed. The longest vetting process between nomination and confirmation was 112 days for Edward Avalos for USDA undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory programs. Three other undersecretaries at USDA took less than three weeks from nomination to confirmation.

If Northey's nomination had gone has planned, he would have gotten a full Senate vote in late October with Greg Ibach, now USDA the undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs. Northey, like Ibach, received a unanimous vote coming out of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

As of Wednesday, Northey will be on his 139th day since nominated by President Trump.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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