PHOENIX — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has personally taken charge of the development of the Agriculture Department budget and negotiations with the White House Office of Management and Budget, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Steve Censky said Thursday.
USDA deputy secretaries have traditionally been in charge of budgeting for the department and for leading other USDA officials to negotiate with OMB over the contents of the budget.
President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal to Congress is scheduled to be released February 12. While Congress does not usually follow the budget and sometimes declares it dead on arrival, it is regarded as a statement of the administration’s priorities.
Censky spoke in Phoenix to the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau annual meeting.
Asked afterward by DTN whether he, like his predecessors, was in charge of the budget, Censky said that Perdue was handling the budget himself. Other sources have said that Perdue’s chief of staff, Heidi Green, is playing an important role in budget development and relations with OMB.
Censky said that he could not discuss budget details before its release, but that the fiscal year 2018 budget, which included cuts to crop insurance that farmers and the industry did not like, is an indication of what the fiscal 2019 budget is likely to contain.
He noted that Trump had been elected to improve the military and rein in domestic spending and said “the budget proposal tries to reflect that.”
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There will be some “hard choices” in the budget, Censky said, but the administration wants to maintain the stability of farmers, continue the basic programs and grow the agricultural economy.
Censky also said that the Trump administration is continuing the modernization of technology at USDA and that officials hope that all the programs in the 2018 farm bill will be available online.
Farmers will still need to go to county Farm Service Agency offices to sign some papers, but Censky said he hopes farmers will be able to deal with applications and other forms online from home before going to the office. Farmers uncomfortable using a computer will still be able to go to the county office to fill out paperwork, he said.
Deputy secretaries are also by tradition in charge of making the massive department function, and Censky said that a plan to require all USDA employees to be in the office at least four days each week rather than telecommuting is going into effect as scheduled.
USDA officials sent memos to employees in early January notifying them that in 30 days they would be expected to be in the office four days per week and that if they have been telecommuting more than that they would have to make arrangements to be in the office.
Censky said USDA employees have been allowed to telecommute if any part of a job is eligible for it, but that the Trump administration believes that “the whole job should be eligible for telecommuting before that person is eligible for telecommuting.”
Censky also said USDA needs Bill Northey, the Iowa agriculture secretary whose nomination for Agriculture undersecretary for farm production and conservation has been put on hold by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“We hope to get Bill Northey freed,” Censky told reporters after his speech.
But Censky said that as Cruz’s hold on Northey continues, he and other USDA officials have begun interviewing candidates for the positions that would fall under Northey: the administrators of the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency and the chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Perdue doesn’t want to make those appointments without an undersecretary in place, he added.
Censky noted that Northey has gotten caught up in the battles between ethanol and petroleum, but said he does not think that the issues of Renewable Identification Numbers can be resolved within the debate over Northey.
Perdue has talked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about moving Northey’s nomination, but “it is tough” for McConnell to go against a member of his own caucus, Censky said.
Meanwhile, Northey faces a decision of whether to continue to be a candidate for the USDA position or to run again for Iowa agriculture secretary.
Mike Naig, Northey’s deputy in Iowa, said he is exploring running for the job, but won’t if Northey decides to run again. Other Republicans have already announced their plans to run on the assumption that Northey would depart. Ray Gaesser, former president of the American Soybean Association, is running for the office as a Republican, as is Craig Lang, former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.
Tim Gannon, who worked for eight years with former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, is running for the Iowa agriculture secretary position as a Democrat.
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