WASHINGTON — Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, pledged to be a “tenacious advocate and fighter” for farmers within the administration and said he would try to address requests for help from dairy and cotton producers ahead of the next farm bill.
Testifying at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday, Perdue promised to work with Robert Lighthizer, the nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to protect agriculture’s interests in upcoming trade negotiations.
Perdue also distanced himself somewhat from Trump’s budget proposals and expressed support for easing financial restrictions on trade with Cuba.
“Agriculture is in my heart, and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America,” he said.
In addition, Perdue disclosed that he had discussed the rural opioid crisis at some length with former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and would support using USDA resources to combat the problem. Perdue also said USDA’s rural development programs, which were targeted in Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, were vital to rural communities.
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would schedule a vote on the nomination as soon as possible but didn’t set a timeline. Perdue will first have to answer numerous questions that are expected to be submitted by committee members in writing. As a result, the full Senate isn’t expected to vote on Perdue until after its two-week Easter recess, which ends April 21.
During the hearing, committee members pressed Perdue on a range of regional concerns, including dairy, biofuels and forest management, as well as trade policy and issues expected to come up in the next farm bill. Democrats, led by the committee’s ranking member, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, pushed the former Georgia governor to be an independent voice within the administration on budget issues.
Perdue assured her he had nothing to do with Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, which called for cutting the “discretionary” portion of USDA’s budget by 21 percent. “You probably saw it before I did. I obviously have some concern,” he said of the budget.
Stabenow said the proposals “made it clear that rural America is not a top priority for this administration.” She told reporters after the hearing, however, that she planned to vote for Perdue. She said that he understands agriculture and that “after multiple dissuasions with him I believe he can do a good job of running the department.”
More than 80 percent of USDA’s budget is considered mandatory since spending levels are driven by requirements in the farm bill, child nutrition requirements and other laws. The remainder, which is subject to annual appropriations bills, is classified as discretionary.
Roberts led off the questioning by seeking Perdue’s commitment to be a forceful advocate for agriculture on trade policy. Roberts repeated his concern that too many people in the administration will have authority on trade policy, including Peter Navarro, the China hawk who heads the new National Trade Council.
“Agriculture needs a strong advocate, a tenacious advocate with regard” to trade,” Perdue said, indicating that he had already discussed the issue with Lighthizer and Ross. “We’re blessed in this nation to be able to produce more than we can consume.”
Later, Perdue told Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., that he would be USDA’s “chief salesman around the world” and would work “side by side” with Lighthizer and Ross. USDA will be “intimately involved in the personal, on-the-ground, boots-on-the-ground negotiations around the world,” Perdue said.
Under questioning from Stabenow, Perdue promised to work with dairy producers on reforms to the Margin Protection Program, and to consider ahead of the next farm bill an industry proposal to create insurance products specifically for milk production.
He also said he would address concerns of cotton producers as well, but he offered no specifics. Cotton growers unsuccessfully appealed to Vilsack to make cottonseed eligible for the Price Loss Coverage program. They are expected to make the same request to Perdue. An administrative decision allowing PLC payments for cottonseed would create a new funding stream, or baseline, for cotton when lawmakers write the new farm bill.
“I would absolutely look forward to us providing a short- and long-term solution for the dairy program, and even the cotton program, that may help in the context and formation of the 2018 farm bill,” Perdue said.
Perdue also seemed to provide some backing to the effort by farm and conservation groups to keep nutrition programs within the farm bill. When Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., asked Perdue whether he would build a coalition to bridge regional differences among farmers, the nominee added that the coalition should also include “our nutrition people.”
The Cabinet nominee gave a strong endorsement to the federal crop insurance program. A “well-run, well-managed, well-administered program gives farmers a lot of confidence,” he said.
Perdue also took a stand on a couple of issues that will require action by Congress or other departments – trade with Cuba and the H-2A guest-worker program. He said he would support ending the requirement that Cubans pay for agricultural imports up front in cash. “We have the products they need, and they like” them, he said.
He said he would also support adding an exemption to the H-2A program so that dairy farms could import workers for year-round labor. H-2A visas are generally limited to seasonal labor, but there is an exemption for sheep and goat production.
In his opening statement, Perdue made four specific promises to the committee. He said he work to “maximize the opportunity and ability of the men and women of America’s agriculture and agribusiness sector to create jobs;” manage USDA “efficiently, effectively, and with the utmost integrity;” ensure that the food supply is “safe and secure;” and protect the environment through “smart stewardship.”
Perdue’s family, including his four children and 14 grandchildren sat behind him during the hearing, and he was introduced by two fellow Georgians, Rep. David Scott, an African-American Democrat who served with him in the state legislature, and former GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee from 2005-2007. Another African-American lawmaker, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., was in the audience.
Scott gave an impassioned defense to Perdue’s handling as governor of a successful effort to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag. Perdue held a referendum on the issue.