After smooth hearing, Roberts wants Perdue vote ASAP
Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, seemed to reassure every senator on every issue during his confirmation hearing March 23, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would schedule a committee business meeting “as soon as possible” to vote on sending Perdue’s nomination to the full Senate.
A spokeswoman for Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in an email after the hearing that the senator “plans to support him so long as his responses to her remaining questions for the record do not raise concerns.”
The National Farmers Union, the most Democratic-leaning farm group, called for Perdue’s “swift confirmation.”
During a nearly three-hour hearing, Perdue, a former Georgia Republican governor, repeatedly stated his commitment to promoting ag trade, including easing financing for Cuba, and said he had no input into Trump’s proposed budget that included a 21 percent cut to Agriculture Department discretionary programs.
He also said he understands agriculture’s need for foreign workers, including year-round workers in the dairy industry, and pledged to revamp forestry policy and even promised to try to make it easier for low-income children who get free school meals to get access to summer meals. In his first question, Roberts made clear his fear that Trump’s statements on Mexico, China and trade agreements have endangered American exports, telling Perdue, “I have been concerned that there may be too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to trade, and we want to make sure they are familiar with the main ingredients.” Roberts also asked Perdue to tell him “the best way” that USDA can make sure agriculture is a “top, and I mean top, priority” in trade policy. Perdue responded that he would establish strong personal relationships with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and with Robert Lighthizer, the nominee for U.S. trade representative.
Later in the hearing, Perdue said he plans to be “USDA’s chief salesman around the world” and promised to both sell products and to be “side by side” with Ross negotiating trade deals.
He also told Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that Canadian grain standards and dairy policy and Mexican sugar exports should be part of the renegotiation on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Asked about the Brazilian meat scandal, Perdue said he is pleased that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is inspecting 100 percent of the meat coming in from Brazil, but noted he would oppose a ban on Brazilian meat because other countries might use that to stop imports of U.S. food products.
Asked by Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., for his views on Cuba, Perdue noted he had led a Georgia delegation to Cuba in 2010. Cuban officials had told him they cannot afford to buy U.S. food products because current U.S. law requires them to go through Europe for financing and they have to take “a financial haircut,” he said.
Perdue took the moment to note his knowledge of ag outside the South, saying that Cuban exports are important not only to southeastern states that produce rice but to Midwestern states that produce edible beans and that “private financing” needs to be improved.
After Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former chairman of the committee, told Perdue the H2A visa program for foreign farm workers does not work for dairy because it covers only seasonal workers, the nominee promised to “advise and counsel” the administration on a program for agricultural workers “that is year-round.”
Perdue later told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that improving the H2A program to cover year-round workers and trade are the two issues he would work on “post haste” if he is confirmed. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Stabenow presented the greatest challenges to Perdue, telling him in an opening statement that Trump’s slowness in nominating him and not having an agriculture secretary in place yet showed that in the first two months of the administration “rural America has been an afterthought.”
“Especially during these times of low prices for agriculture and uncertainty around budget, trade and immigration, we need the next secretary to be an unapologetic advocate for all of rural America. We need someone who will be tenacious, much like a Georgia bulldog,” Stabenow said.
Stabenow asked Perdue if he had “input” into the budget that called for a 21 percent cut to USDA.
Perdue responded, “You are probably aware that without confirmation I have had no input into the budget. You probably saw it before I did.“
As a member of the administration, Perdue added, he would treat the budget as he did a lower-than-expected revenue estimate when he was governor of Georgia. “I didn’t like it but I managed within it.”
But he also said that, once confirmed, he wanted to work to “let people making decisions in the budget area” know what is important to rural America.
Later in the hearing, he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that he hoped to “work” with appropriators on the budget issues.
Under questioning from Stabenow, he acknowledged that equal access to water, telemedicine, research, broadband and feeding children and seniors are all important, even though Trump’s proposed budget would cut them.
Asked by Stabenow if he believes organic farming has a place in agriculture, Perdue said, “Consumers across the country have demonstrated that.”
When Stabenow noted the problems that dairy farmers are finding with low prices, and that the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and the National Milk Producers Federation have come up with a short-term plan to help them, Perdue said “the ideas that have been proposed are intriguing to me” and that he would do all he could within the law to help the dairy farmers. ❖
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