Secretary Perdue is still looking for help
The second floor of the U.S. .Department of Agriculture's headquarters building, where the Secretary of Agriculture holds court, is still pretty quiet. It's been more than eight months since Donald Trump was sworn in as president, and his cabinet positions are all filled, including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
But the next tier of positions — the deputy, the undersecretaries and the administrators that handle key policy and program decisions — are all vacant.
That could start to change soon, although the process is moving at a snail's pace.
At least two key nominees, the deputy agriculture secretary and the new position of undersecretary for trade, easily cleared their Senate confirmation hearings last week and are waiting for the full U.S. Senate to vote.
Steve Censky, the deputy secretary nominee who is now CEO of the American Soybean Association, assured the Senate Agriculture Committee that he would work to keep crop insurance "effective and viable," champion the Renewable Fuel Standard and provide input into development of Trump's budget proposals.
Censky, who hails from southwest Minnesota, also spelled out three personal goals that included ensuring that U.S. agriculture becomes more resilient to climate change. The other two goals: Expanding rural broadband availability and expanding market opportunities, both through foreign trade and promoting local and regional food markets.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who worked for then-Sen. Jim Abdnor, R-S.D., at the same time as Censky did in the 1980s, recalled observing him work on farm policy.
"I always watched with great interest how he handled what was a very difficult time in agriculture, a time of great crisis, with great patience, diplomacy, empathy and knowledge," said Thune.
The nominee for trade undersecretary, Indiana Agriculture Director Ted McKinney, pledged to be a "happy warrior" for U.S. producers on trade.
"I anticipate investing significant time in many foreign countries, building trust, opening doors for farmers and processors," he said.
He said he wanted to be known as "a high-trust, high-delivery person of our ag portfolio."
McKinney also said that USDA should continue to push a regionalization concept in managing animal disease outbreaks. USDA urges other countries to limit their import restrictions to the specific U.S. regions where a disease such as avian influenza has been found.
"We've got to continue to use science and research to show that we can manage these diseases, and we have," he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat whose state was hit hard by the 2015 outbreak of avian influenza.
Neither nominee ran into any problems in the hearing and both are likely to have broad bipartisan support. The committee cannot vote on the nominations until at least next week to give time for senators to get follow-up questions answered by the nominees.
Perdue, who is eager to get a team in place at USDA, made a surprise visit to the hearing to greet the nominees and to listen to their opening statements.
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Stabenow made clear the committee was aware that Perdue needs Censky and McKinney on the job.
"Secretary Perdue and his team have hit the ground running to keep the department working on behalf of the nation's farmers, ranchers and other rural stakeholders, but we need to get his team officially on board," Roberts said.
Stabenow said Perdue "can't single-handedly run the department, which is why we are here to give him support."
Trump also nominated four other people for high level jobs at USDA:
• Bill Northey, currently serving as Iowa's agriculture secretary, as his pick for undersecretary for farm production and conservation.
• Greg Ibach for the position of undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs. Ibach has been Nebraska's ag director since June of 2005, serving under two different governors over the last 12 years.
• Stephen Vaden to be USDA's chief counsel. He is a Yale-educated attorney who has been at USDA since Trump's inauguration, first as a senior advisor to the Office of General Counsel and then as acting general counsel beginning in March.
• Sam Clovis as undersecretary for research, education and economics. Clovis served as chief policy adviser on the Trump campaign and has been working as a senior White House adviser at USDA since the president took office.
The first three are expected to also sail through the nomination process, but Clovis has already drawn the ire of top Democrats for comments he made while working as a conservative radio commentator in Iowa and for his lack of research credentials.
The Senate Agriculture Committee has not yet announced dates for consideration of any additional USDA nominees.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., will say only that the committee will act on Clovis "in an expeditious fashion, if that is the desire of the secretary and the president."