An Urban's Rural View

Will Sonny Perdue Have a Sunny Confirmation Process?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The confirmation process for President Donald Trump's cabinet nominees has been slow and, in a few cases, bitterly partisan. Only three Democratic Senators voted for Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, only one for Jeff Sessions as Attorney General -- and zero for Betsy DeVos and Tom Price as Secretary of Education and Secretary of Health and Human Services.

At some point the Senate will get around to Sonny Perdue, Trump's nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. He seems a safe bet to be confirmed. It will be interesting to see how many Democratic votes he'll get.

Conventional wisdom says agricultural politics are more regional than partisan, more likely to pit northerner against southerner than Democrat against Republican.

Regional overtones were certainly audible in the pre-nomination jockeying. Seeing Perdue, a former Georgia governor, among the front runners, Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley urged Trump to pick his agriculture secretary "from above the Mason-Dixon line." (Grassley's candidate was longtime Iowa ag secretary Bill Northey.)

Now that Perdue is the nominee, though, it's hard to imagine northern Republicans not supporting him. Even Grassley has met him and seems satisfied with him. There will be time for Republicans to hash out conflicting regional interests, but that time isn't now.

As for the partisan side of the regional-not-partisan question, two Democrats -- former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and North Dakota Senator Heidi Heidtkamp -- have given Perdue their blessing. Vilsack, who has resurfaced as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, is said to be the only Obama cabinet member to endorse Trump's nominee to succeed him. Heidtkamp, who is up for re-election in 2018 in a state Trump won, also voted yes on Tillerson. Other Democrats from "big ag" states may well join the pro-Perdue parade. If they do, that will lend support to the "regional, not partisan" theory.

To be sure, there will be Democrats who oppose Perdue on grounds that are, if not partisan, at least ideological. These would be the anti-Big Ag Democrats, some of whom were none too happy with Vilsack, either. The Sierra Club, the Environmental Working Group and the Organic Consumers Association have already come out against Perdue. Groups like these may influence some senators' votes.

It's worth noting, though, that environmental groups are far from unanimously anti-Perdue. Audubon is an interesting case. The bird-conservation group opposes Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, favors his choice for Secretary of the Interior and is "also following" his nominee for Secretary of Agriculture (http://bit.ly/…). "We are encouraged about opportunities to work with the department on supporting wildlife and habitat conservation programs in the upcoming Farm Bill," Audubon said.

That's the thing about agriculture politics: It centers on the farm bill, and the farm bill includes conservation and nutrition programs. As a result, it's supported by urban and coastal Democrats who might otherwise vote against farm subsidies. In that way, the farm bill acts as a centripetal force keeping differences on the most acrimonious ag issues from spinning out of control. If ag politics is less partisan than other politics, give some credit to the coalitional dynamics of the farm-bill process.

Taking everything into account, then, we can expect Sonny Perdue to get a goodly number of Democratic votes. Not as many, certainly, as James Mattis, the new Secretary of Defense, who was confirmed on a 98-1 vote, with only New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand a nay. But more than enough for confirmation and many more than a lot of Trump nominees.

For in the end ag politics are partly partisan, partly regional and importantly coalitional. That's something to remember the next time some think tank proposes splitting nutrition programs out of the farm bill.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanize@gmail.com

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