Perdue names rural development assistant despite objections

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talks with Anne Hazlett, the new assistant to the secretary for rural development.

Agriculture Sonny Perdue has named Anne Hazlett his assistant on rural development and eliminated the undersecretary role, even though Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., urged him to maintain the undersecretary position.

Hazlett has been the chief Republican counsel on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In a letter to Perdue, Stabenow and Merkley said they had received many letters from rural development groups opposing what they considered a lowering of rural development’s profile at USDA, and had received no letters in favor of it.

Rural development groups are also troubled by the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts for those programs.

Perdue’s decision to appoint Hazlett shows that he intends to proceed with his reorganization of USDA, even if that means confrontations with Congress and with the groups that lobby for USDA rural development programs.

Perdue, who is scheduled to testify before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, tweeted the announcement and issued a news release.

In the release, he said Hazlett will oversee the Rural Utilities Service, the Rural Business Service, and the Rural Housing Service within USDA, and report directly him.

Perdue said he considers the realignment to be an “elevation” of rural development because the undersecretaries report to the agriculture deputy secretary.

USDA added in the news release, “It is important to note that the systems, functions, and internal structure of the Rural Development agencies will not be changing. Removing the additional bureaucratic layer of an undersecretary will allow Hazlett as assistant to the secretary to obtain ‘go’ or ‘no go’ decisions directly from Perdue without having to have ideas or suggestions passed through channels in the office.”

An Indiana native, Hazlett earlier was the director of agriculture for her home state, where she managed the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and was an adviser to Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, on agriculture and rural issues.

She also served as as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, and assisted in the creation of the state’s first Office of Community and Rural Affairs, an agency providing financial and technical assistance to rural communities, and supervised management of the state’s housing finance, energy, and tourism agencies.

She has also practiced law in the private sector.

Hazlett holds a bachelor of science degree in agricultural communications from Kansas State University, a law degree from Indiana University, and a master’s degree in agricultural law from the University of Arkansas.

Perdue’s decision to eliminate the position of Agriculture undersecretary for rural development is tied up in his departmental reorganization to create an undersecretary for trade and global agricultural affairs.

As part of that decision, Perdue also announced he would move the Natural Resources Conservation Service from the Natural Resources and Environment mission area to the Food Production and Conservation mission area headed by an undersecretary who previously had the title of undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.

In their letter about the reorganization plan, Stabenow and Merkley also wrote, “Additionally, we have questions about the proposal to move the Natural Resources Conservation Service under a new farm production and conservation undersecretary.“

“While we certainly support the goal of streamlining delivery of USDA programs, it is critical this move not diminish the important work NRCS does to protect our land and water. Further, we have questions about whether this move will diminish the longstanding cooperation between the NRCS and the Forest Service, and the positive results of that cooperation.”

Greg Fogel, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said Perdue’s announcement “seems especially bold given that the public comment period on the USDA reorganization is open until Wednesday.”

“This begs the question — What, then, was the purpose of asking for guidance from rural taxpayers and communities? Congressional appropriators are the last and best means by which to stop this ill-advised reorganization, and they are the target of this letter.”

About 600 organizations wrote Congress today asking appropriators to stop the elimination of the rural development undersecretary by withholding money.