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Published April 05, 2010, 09:54 AM

Obama makes his picks

WASHINGTON — Major farm groups are praising President Obama’s March 27 decision to appoint Michael Punke, a former aide to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as deputy U.S. trade representative and head of the Trade Representative’s Geneva office and two other officials whose nominations had been held up in the Senate.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Major farm groups are praising President Obama’s March 27 decision to appoint Michael Punke, a former aide to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as deputy U.S. trade representative and head of the Trade Representative’s Geneva office and two other officials whose nominations had been held up in the Senate.

These other recess appointees are Islam Siddiqui, a former Californian, as chief U.S. agriculture negotiator, and former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, D-Ind., as a member of the Farm Credit Administration board.

On hold

Recess appointments are those made by presidents when the Senate is in recess. The practice started in the 19th century when Congress was in session for only short periods and presidents needed to be able to make appointments to positions that normally require Senate confirmation to keep the government running. In recent years, presidents have used the power to make appointments of nominees who have become stalled in the Senate. President Obama made 15 recess appointments March 27. Republicans criticized him for not following normal procedure, but Obama has said that

Republicans were preventing him from hiring needed government officials.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., had placed holds on Punke and Siddiqui to push the administration to pressure Canada to repeal parts of an anti-smoking law passed there that he thinks disadvantages Kentucky tobacco.

Forty-two agriculture groups organized as the AgTrade Coalition have been campaigning since last year to get Punke and Siddiqui confirmed. The 42 groups wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Jan, 21, expressing “deep concern” about the delays in the Senate confirmations of Punke and Siddiqui.

A necessary move

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, who did not sign the earlier letter, defended Obama’s decision to make the recess appointments, saying the nominations had been held up so long

“What alternative did the president have?” Johnson added, “It is hard to hold anyone accountable if you don’t give the appointments for the jobs that the law requires them to do.”

Punke, a lawyer, served in the trade representative’s office in the Clinton administration and recently has lived in Montana, working as an adjunct professor at the University of Montana and as a writer, authoring a novel, two books of nonfiction and two screenplays. Siddiqui most recently has been a vice president for biotechnology and trade for CropLife America. Siddiqui spent 28 years with the California Department of Food and Agriculture before he joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Clinton administration. Before joining CropLife, Siddiqui was a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“We applaud the appointments of Mr. Punke and Mr. Siddiqui. These two positions are critical in ensuring that agriculture remains a player in the global marketplace and that more jobs are created from trade for the U.S. economy,” said Corn Refiners Association President Audrae Erickson, who had coordinated the January letter.

Vital for trade

“These two appointments are very important for not only agriculture, but trade in general. The holds on their conformations had nothing to do with their qualifications, so we are pleased President Obama made the recess appointments,” said the American Farm Bureau Federation.”

John Keeling of the National Potato Council Potato Council noted that Obama had made a doubling of exports one of the goals of his administration and said achieving that goal would be impossible without filling key trade positions. “We applaud the president’s actions to fill key trade positions and begin to move forward with a positive trade agenda. Whether it is pursuing bilateral or multilateral trade agreements or resolving particular trade issues like the Mexican trucking dispute having this key positions filled will be positive,” Keeling said.

The American Farmland Trust, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council also praised Obama’s decision to fill the positions.

The National Cotton Council said the Senate should confirm Punke and Siddiqui so that they can continue to serve beyond December 2011, when the recess appointments would expire.

Siddiqui also got an endorsement from Johnson, who said Siddiqui had gotten a “bum rap” when small farm and organic groups opposed him because his work for CropLife America had involved representing Monsanto and other agribusiness companies. The National Family Farm Coalition, which had opposed Siddiqui’s nomination, did not return an email seeking comment.

Farm Credit Council President Ken Auer praised Thompson’s appointment, saying her experience as a House member and as undersecretary for rural development at USDA in the Clinton administration makes her “tremendously qualified to serve as a member of the FCA board.”

Baucus said the Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved Punke and Siddiqui and said he was confident their experience “will help us garner real and significant market access for U.S. exports, bolster job growth here at home, and improve U.S. economic competitiveness around the world.”

Senate Health, Education, Pensions and Labor Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who formerly chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, applauded all three appointments and praised Obama for “breaking the stronghold of obstructionism that has held nominations up for months in the Senate.”

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