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Published January 25, 2011, 01:32 PM

Miller leaving USDA post

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller, a key aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., will leave his post to return to Conrad’s office to work on the 2012 farm bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller, a key aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., will leave his post to return to Conrad’s office to work on the 2012 farm bill.

Miller was a key aide to Conrad when Conrad preserved money for the farm bill in the federal budget. Miller and Conrad worked together to make sure there would be a safety net for commodity producers that members of Congress from both the North and South could support.

Leader and adviser

Lobbyists privately praised Miller’s decision to leave USDA to return to Capitol Hill, saying that, while Miller’s duties implementing the 2008 farm bill and handling key trade issues have been important and his performance impressive, writing the next farm bill is more important.

“Jim Miller is one of the best,” Conrad said in an e-mail. “He is deeply committed to farmers and ranchers and America’s rural communities. His encyclopedic knowledge of ag policy has only increased while at USDA. I am fortunate to have him come back to my staff and put that experience and knowledge to work helping craft a new farm bill.”

Miller said in an e-mail that he has “deep respect” for Conrad and looks forward to “supporting his efforts in preparation for the next piece of comprehensive agriculture legislation.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised Miller in a statement calling him “a valued leader and trusted adviser.”

“Jim is a fierce advocate for American agriculture and under his leadership, trade barriers have been broken and new records have been set for agricultural exports,” Vilsack said. “Jim’s leadership was instrumental in implementing the 2008 farm bill, while also improving how we deliver payments to farmers in the most timely and efficient way possible. His commitment to conservation led to the expanded (Conservation Reserve Program) enrollment currently underway.

“Jim is also keenly aware of the need to reduce the federal deficit, and under his leadership we achieved $4 billion in savings by renegotiating the federal government’s contract with the crop insurance industry. Jim will continue doing important work on behalf of farmers and ranchers and I thank him for his tireless service to USDA and the farmers and ranchers that we serve. “

As undersecretary, Miller oversaw the day-to-day operation of the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency and Foreign Agricultural Service.

Top priority

Conrad has said he will not run for re-election in 2012, but he would make the 2012 farm bill one of his highest priorities in his last two years in office.

Miller has been highly regarded in his role at USDA, where he has implemented large sections of the 2008 farm bill and traveled around the world — including many trips to China — to fight barriers to U.S. exports and to promote the sale of U.S. agricultural products.

But while USDA plays an important role in agriculture and Miller’s Senate-confirmed position is highly prestigious, the real power in agricultural policymaking in Washington is in writing the farm bill, and Miller likely is to have more power in his new post working on the 2012 bill.

Miller began his career in public policy while managing the family farm. He was an officer in the National Association of Wheat Growers from 1981 to ’88 and became a lobbyist for the wheat growers in 1995.

As commodity groups turned more Republican in their leadership, Miller, a Democrat, moved in 1999 to the Democratic-leaning National Farmers Union. He went to work for Conrad in 2004 and returned to the Farmers Union as chief economist before joining the Obama administration in early 1999.

Miller is expected to stay at USDA for another two weeks. USDA has announced that Michael Scuse, Miller’s deputy, will take over as acting undersecretary.

Finding a replacement

Scuse was Delaware agriculture secretary from May 2001 until September 2008, when Deleware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, named him as her chief of staff. From 1996 to 2001, Scuse served as both chairman of the Kent County, Del., Regional Planning Commission and chairman of USDA’s Farmer Service Agency state committee. Before that, he was Kent County recorder of deeds.

While he was agriculture secretary of Delaware, Scuse served as a vice president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and as president of the Northeast Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Scuse was appointed to the USDA post in April 2009, at which time Vilsack said in a news release he brought two important strengths to the role.

“He has extensive knowledge of agriculture and a solid management background. Having served as Delaware’s agriculture secretary and vice president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, Michael knows U.S. agriculture from both state and national perspectives. He also understands farming first-hand. For 35 years, he and his brother have run a successful grain operation in their home state.”

No announcement has been made about a possible permanent successor to Miller.

The position requires Senate confirmation.

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