Sonny Perdue is confirmed by the Senate as the next agriculture secretary
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-N.Y., Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Edward Markey, D-Mass, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Jack Reed, D-R.I., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., 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 on Tuesday 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 Tuesday.
“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.”
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.
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. 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.