WASHINGTON – After months without a secretary of agriculture, the Senate voted Monday evening to confirm former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to the post.
The vote was 87 to 11 with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, Ron Wyden, D-OR, Cory Booker, D-NJ, Elizabeth Warren, D-MA., Edward Markey, D-MA, Bernie Sanders, I-VT, Jack Reed, D-RI, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, Robert Menendez, D-NJ, Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, and Kamala Harris, D-CA., voting against the nomination. Perdue's cousin, Sen David Perdue, R-GA., presided over the Senate for the vote.
The much-delayed appointment — the last announced Trump cabinet post, announced just a day before the Jan. 20 inauguration — has prompted some to express concern that President Donald Trump has made a low priority of the rural and farm interests credited with his victory in November.
In part to address that concern, the president is expected to sign an executive order this week promoting agriculture and “rural prosperity,” and will hold a roundtable discussion with some farmers at the White House. The names and hometowns of the farmer participants were not released Monday by the White House. Perdue is expected to be sworn in as the 31st secretary of agriculture on April 25.
“I’m pleased that the U.S. Senate was able to work in a bipartisan fashion to confirm Governor Perdue,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, after the vote. “I have faith that Governor Perdue will put the needs of farmers and ranchers first, and I know that rural America is thankful to have such a qualified Agriculture Secretary on their side.”
Without leadership long enough
In the floor debate ahead of the vote, the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said the department has been without leadership "long enough," and endorsed Perdue as someone who can "cross regional divides and partisan pressures." She added he understands the challenges farmers are facing.
Perdue, 70, comes to office in the historic beaux-arts Jamie L. Whitten agriculture department building on the National Mall with extensive agricultural expertise. He grew up on a dairy farm, got his doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia and has had an ownership stake in fertilizer businesses, grain elevators and in an agricultural trucking company.
Perdue also takes office since the president released a proposed 2018 budget blueprint that would reduce the USDA budget by $4.7 billion, or 21 percent, over this year’s funding levels while eliminating water and wastewater loan programs, the department’s statistical capabilities and foreign food aid.
In his confirmation hearing last month, after reaching agreement with the Office of Government Ethics on stipulations aimed at avoiding conflicts of interest, Perdue said he had not been consulted on the proposed cuts and defended several of the programs set to be axed.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said in his floor remarks Monday that he hoped, once confirmed, that Perdue would "fight against these damaging cuts" proposed by the White House, which he said would put a "nail in the coffin" of rural America.
The Senate Agriculture Committee took up the nomination following Perdue’s decision to take steps to avoid the appearance or real conflicts of interest. As governor, Perdue declined to place his assets in a blind trust but will now have his family wealth preservation trust restructured so that he will have no say in its investments.
Perdue was the subject of 13 complaints to the Georgia State Ethics Commission, some involving campaign contributions, while he was governor, including two in which fines were imposed.
Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter was among food advocates to denounce Perdue's confirmation, citing ethical missteps.
“Like Trump’s other cabinet appointments, Perdue has serious conflicts of interest, most recently through his role as the head of a global food trade company. With Perdue as serving as Secretary of Agriculture we will have to fight to make sure that agribusiness is not allowed to prioritize profits above food safety, farmer livelihoods, worker safety or the environment.”
Ag industry welcomes Perdue
Agricultural commodity industry associations from cotton to chickens reacted mostly favorably to the Perdue nomination although some were disappointed that it took so long for the then-president-elect to make his selection.
The National Corn Growers Association welcomed news of Perdue's confirmation and said it was confident that the new Ag Secretary would bring strong leadership to the Department.
“We are ready to partner with Secretary Perdue and the rest of the Administration to build a better farm economy. That begins with strong trade policy and continued investment in renewable fuels. It also means protecting risk management programs during a weak economy, and beginning preparations for the next farm bill. There is much work to do, and we are eager to begin,” the NCGA said in a statement.
“We congratulate Secretary Sonny Perdue on his confirmation by the Senate today, and we’re eager to work with him on the challenges facing the nation’s dairy farmers – issues he’s already indicated he will tackle at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
As tensions between the U.S. and Canada grow over the dairy trade dispute, the National Milk Producers Federation said Perdue's support of the export markets is critical.
“Secretary Perdue knows that dairy farmers depend on export markets around the world and closer to home, which is why it is important for USDA to insist on preserving market access to key customers in Mexico, and demand that Canada plays by the international trade rules to which it has already agreed," said NMPF President Jim Mulhern. "We also need (Perdue’s) support to help develop new dairy export markets in Japan and elsewhere. As one of every seven tankers of milk we produce is exported, agricultural trade policy plays a central role in boosting the health of the rural economy."
The group noted that Perdue had earlier expressed support for improving the dairy Margin Protection Program so that it can serve as the effective safety net it was intended to be.
"NMPF looks forward to working with Secretary Perdue and his staff at USDA to improve the tools available to dairy farmers to help manage the economic and natural risks they face," he said.
Pundits said he was telegraphing that the rural America that drove his victory may be a low priority. Perdue would come into office following some lean years for the nation’s farmers who have seen a 50 percent drop in net farm income since 2013.
Opponents of his nomination continued to urge no votes on Monday. Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, released a statement reading in part: "The USDA needs a champion who will support small family farmers, food safety standards, and healthier food — not another shill for big agribusiness."
Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., who represents the Salinas Valley and the U.S. "salad bowl," said he hoped to work with Perdue and expects him the "stand firm" against proposed budget cuts.
"During his confirmation hearing, Secretary Perdue called immigration reform one of his top priorities," Panneta noted. "I look forward to working with Secretary Perdue to address our country’s broken immigration system to ensure certainty for both our growers and farmworkers.”
Roberts pointed out that he had been endorsed by the six previous agriculture secretaries, including his immediate predecessor, Democrat and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. But historically, Politico noted Monday that Perdue is the first agriculture secretary nominee in 31 years to receive even a single no vote from the floor.
Still, those in the ag industry remain optimistic, especially when considering Perdue's close ties to the industry.
“Secretary Perdue is a long-time friend to me and farmers across Georgia, and soon to the millions of men and women across our country who feed and clothe our nation. He is a real-world farmer himself and knows the business inside out," said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall. "He understands the impact farm labor shortages, trade agreements and regulations have on a farmer’s bottom line and ability to stay in business from one season to the next. There’s important work ahead for the secretary, and he’ll need to address these challenges against the backdrop of the biggest drop in farm prices and income we’ve seen in decades. But just like America’s farmers and ranchers, I know Secretary Perdue isn’t afraid of a hard day’s work. We are confident he is the right man for the job at hand.”
Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this story