Republican Lawmakers, Industry Back Perdue’s Shakeup at USDA

By Casey Wooten

Republican lawmakers and agribusiness groups reacted positively to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement that he would reorganize several top spots at the USDA, creating an undersecretary for trade.

Perdue spoke May 11 in Cincinnati, where he announced the creation of an undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs and an undersecretary for farm production and conservation. The new trade undersecretary will serve as the lead trade policy coordinator at the department.

Perdue’s move essentially carries out a 2014 farm bill provision that called for splitting the undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services into two positions, though Perdue’s changes go further, involving other areas of the department as well.

“The reorganization seeks to place USDA agencies in a more logical order,” Perdue said.

The administrative shakeup is the biggest move so far in Perdue’s tenure as agriculture secretary and signals that promoting U.S. agricultural products abroad will bill a key area of focus.

“To have USDA recognize the importance of farm trade by creating this position is very encouraging, and we appreciate the administration’s foresight in doing so,” American Soybean Association President Ron Moore said in a statement.

Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement: “This position will play a vital role in leading USDA’s efforts to capitalize on foreign demand for U.S. agriculture products and we look forward to working with the Undersecretary to break down trade barriers and expand our ability to meet the growing demand for U.S. beef in key markets like Asia.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) issued statements praising the changes.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) also backed the decision. Perdue is scheduled to appear before that committee on May 17 to deliver an economic outlook on the rural economy.

Agricultural trade is one of the few bright spots of U.S. exports. U.S. agriculture had a $17 billion positive trade balance in 2016, the American Soybean Association said.

The new trade undersecretary will oversee the department’s Foreign Agricultural Service, promoting U.S. agricultural goods abroad. The new undersecretary for farm production and conservation will oversee the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service, organizations which manage conservation programs and crop insurance.

Perdue has not yet named anyone to fill either position.

“We’re already looking at candidates,” Perdue said during his Ohio speech.

Other Changes, Skepticism

Perdue also moved to eliminate the undersecretary position for rural development, moving oversight of programs for rural housing and rural broadband internet to the secretary’s office. Perdue characterized the move as a “promotion,” saying it would allow him better oversee any development projects related to President Donald Trump’s proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure spending plan.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) said in a statement that it was “confused and concerned” about the decision to move oversight of the Natural Resources Conservation Service away from the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment and to an undersecretary group focused on production.

“The success or failure of this shift will depend on the details,” the groups said in a statement. “With no full proposal yet released that details this part of the reorganization, it is difficult to say whether or not it will result in more effective outcomes for farmers and the environment.”

The NSAC also said it opposed moving rural development “in office” and eliminating its undersecretary position, characterizing it as a demotion and saying that the group would lose key decision-making powers that comes with being a USDA mission area.

“Moreover, the rural development mission area is huge with many decisions to make on a daily basis, and to assume that the limited number of overworked staff in the Secretary’s office will be better positioned to make and act on these decisions is questionable at best,” the statement said.

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) both supported creating a trade undersecretary, but said they were concerned about moving rural development programs to the secretary’s office.

“This proposal would eliminate an important voice for rural America and bypass Congress’s role to confirm a qualified nominee,” Stabenow said in a statement.

The USDA submitted a report to Congress detailing the changes, according to a USDA statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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