Roberts, Stabenow stress need for USDA rural development undersecretary

Zachary Silver
for The Hagstrom Report
Testifying at USDA’s rural development and energy hearing last week, left to right: Bette Brand, administrator of Rural Business Service for USDA; Bruce Lammers, administrator of Rural Housing Service for USDA; and Chad Rupe, administrator of Rural Utilities Service for USDA.
Photo by Zachary Silver/The Hagstrom Report

Both Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said last week that President Donald Trump needs to nominate a candidate for the position of agriculture undersecretary for rural development.

When the Trump administration started, White House officials decided to fill the position of agriculture undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs and said they could not fill the position of undersecretary for rural development because the law limited the number of undersecretaries at USDA. Instead, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appointed an assistant for rural development.

Congress disagreed and in the 2018 farm bill recreated the position of undersecretary for rural development.

Trump has not nominated anyone for the job, and Stabenow said in her opening statement at a Senate Ag Committee hearing last Thursday that “I am disappointed that this committee has still not received a nominee for an undersecretary for rural development. We re-established this important position in the farm bill to be a staunch advocate for rural America within the administration. We need a focused leader to address all of the concerns facing our small towns and rural communities.”

After the hearing, Roberts told reporters that the Republicans have a nominee in mind and are in communication with the Trump administration to begin work on that nomination process.

“I think we have somebody they’ll surely consider,” Roberts said.

In September, Perdue swore in Donald “DJ” LaVoy to serve as deputy agriculture undersecretary for rural development. But LaVoy was not present at the oversight hearing.

Instead, Chad Rupe, administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, one of the rural development divisions, delivered an update on the implementation of farm bill programs at RUS and on behalf of Bette Brand, administrator of the Rural Business Service, and Bruce Lammers, administrator of the Rural Housing Service. Both Brand and Lammers were present at the hearing.

Of concern to Roberts during the hearing was the recent closure of 11 rural development offices across rural America, including two in his home state of Kansas. How, he asked, can citizens feel confident they are getting the proper support they need when nearly a dozen offices are closing around them?

“It’s not simply having an office location in any single community but more of having the right people in the optimal location who have great relationships with the local leaders and are willing to engage at the local level,” Rupe said.

“I don’t believe that you necessarily have to have your office in that certain spot to address every need because we have tremendous need throughout the United States, and we cannot possibly have a location in every single community that needs it. We have to deliver our programs efficiently and effectively and engage it to where everybody can take advance of the development, not just certain communities,” Rupe added.

Roberts said he appreciated Rupe’s reasoning, but following the hearing he still voiced his concerns with the closures, which occurred in his Kansas cities of Garden City and Manhattan.

“As I said, it’s counterintuitive,” Roberts told reporters. “… Maybe it is better to locate offices with outreach in areas where we simply don’t have that kind of growth, but that’s pretty much the story all throughout rural America.”