In his first appearance before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defended President Donald Trump’s budget in general, but said that in many areas, he realizes he can “benefit from some guidance” from the appropriators.
“I am an outcome-based kind of guy, willing to be held accountable,” Perdue said. “If you see things you disagree with, obviously I expect us to have a discussion about that or provide reasons for decisions that were made.”
Perdue’s willingness to deal with criticism from appropriators became particularly relevant in a discussion of his announcement that he had named an assistant to the secretary on rural development. That decision, appointing Anne Hazlett, the chief Republican counsel on the Senate Agriculture Committee, to the new post, effectively eliminated the position of USDA undersecretary for Rural Development.
Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., had written Perdue only a few days earlier that they disagreed with the elimination of the undersecretary position, but he went ahead with the decision, even though a formal comment period on his planned reorganization of USDA was still open.
Merkley made his displeasure about the decision clear at the hearing.
“It caught many of us off guard when you filled the position of assistant to the secretary of [Rural Development] before even the comment period was completed. Why? If you open up a comment period, why not wait until you get the comments before you proceed?” Merkley said.
“The fact that the announcement was made before the comment period ended made us feel that probably our comments had not been read or taken into account in making the decision, and that it was predetermined,” he added.
Perdue responded that USDA had only 30 days to name the Rural Development assistant after announcing the reorganization, and that he had not received many comments opposing the abolition of the undersecretary.
On Tuesday, however, about 600 groups sent letters to Congress opposing what they considered a downgrading of rural development. Holding up a copy of that letter at the hearing, Perdue said that those groups “will see at the end of the day we mean well by them.”
Regardless of how this decision may play out, Perdue again stressed his openness to feedback, saying, “I hope that you will hold me accountable on this. If you do not think we are making progress in rural development by the time the farm bill comes up, I’d welcome you all to direct us to create the nomenclature for an undersecretary of rural development. I can assure you whatever you want to call it, we are going to do the best for rural America.”
When asked about a series of popular USDA programs that Trump threatened to cut — crop insurance, research and development, family housing, water and sewer grants, export assistance, and food aid, including the McGovern-Dole school feeding program — Perdue said he would take guidance from the committee.
But he also gave hints of smaller changes the administration may want. Perdue said he doesn’t see the USDA housing program “diminished,” but that there may be more guaranteed loans rather than direct loans.
When Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., stressed the importance of rural electricity and broadband internet access, Perdue said, “Amen and amen. Rural broadband is no longer a luxury.”
Farmers need it for precision agriculture, and children and grandchildren need it so for school and games, just like children in the cities, he said.
Hoeven also praised Perdue for his rollback of some of the rules for school meals. Perdue responded that he trusts school food service professionals and intends to assemble “a large group of them and let them guide us on school nutrition.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., criticized USDA’s decision to maintain imports of Brazilian meat despite a scandal in that country involving tainted meat, but Perdue said he was following the lead of USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service professionals who said none of the plants involved in the scandal are exporting to the United States.
USDA has a “zero-tolerance policy” when it comes to food safety, Perdue said, adding that the proper vetting has been done and that the meat is safe to consume.
Tester and Merkley both expressed annoyance that the Chinese have demanded traceability of beef and that meatpackers have agreed to achieve those goals, even though they opposed country-of-origin labeling for red meat in the United States.
Tester said he thought the meatpackers’ statements on COOL was “baloney.”
Perdue said he thought it was “hamburger” and that the meatpackers want to serve the 1.3 billion consumers in China.
Perdue also noted that the United States ended its country-of-origin labeling program for red meat in order to comply with a World Trade Organization decision. If Congress wants to revisit that issue, he said, he would be ready to implement the program.