March 24, 2017
Since January, the Senate has been holding confirmation hearings for President Trump’s cabinet nominees. On Thursday, March 23, the Senate Agriculture Committee held its confirmation hearing for Trump’s pick for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary, Sonny Perdue, the last of Trump’s cabinet nominees to be vetted by the Senate.
The Committee will soon schedule a vote on Perdue’s nomination. Assuming the Committee votes in support of Perdue, as expected, his nomination would then go to the full Senate for consideration.
Today’s hearing was congenial, with Senators on both sides of the aisle enjoying positive exchanges with Perdue. At no point did the nominee contradict or argue with something that was said by a member of the Committee, or vice versa.
The topics covered included the safety net for dairy farmers, summer nutrition programs for school aged children, immigration, conservation, and the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request, which the Administration released last week.
On the Administration’s FY 2018 budget request, numerous Senators on both sides of the aisle secured Perdue’s commitment to push back on the President’s proposed cuts to USDA programs, including rural development, credit, and research programs. Deep concerns over the budget proposal were raised by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts (R-KS), Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), John Hoeven (R-ND), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and by Mr. Perdue himself.
A number of senators raised the issue of immigration, primarily in the context of dairy farmers’ need for farm workers. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) voiced concern with President Trump’s recent immigration actions, and urged Perdue to advocate for an Administration policy that supports a consistent flow of labor, particularly for dairy farms.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) believes that agricultural immigration policy will not be sustainable unless workers are treated as members of families and social networks rather than as indentured servants and production inputs. As the Administration engages on immigration policy, we will look for opportunities to promote a free labor market that provides all farm workers with full labor rights and a path to legal status.
Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Van Hollen both talked about the importance of farm bill conservation programs. These programs, including the Conservation Stewardship Program, Conservation Reserve Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, provide the tools and resources necessary for farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to conserve and enhance soil, water, and other resources on and around their land.
Mr. Perdue committed to supporting and improving programs administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Senator Van Hollen explained the importance of USDA’s conservation programs to the Chesapeake Bay clean up effort, to which Perdue responded that the programs have helped farmers in the region limit the nitrogen and phosphorous that they are emitting into the Bay.
Senator Van Hollen also raised the issue of crop insurance not working particularly well for smaller specialty crop producers. NSAC has long worked on crop insurance reform to increase access to the program for small and mid-sized farms, diversified operations, organic farms, specialty crops, and beginning farmers. In the last farm bill, we worked with Congress to create Whole Farm Revenue Protection insurance, which was a major step in the right direction; however, more work is needed to ensure that historically underserved sectors of agriculture, including beginning, small, diversified, and organic operations are able to access insurance products. Mr. Perdue noted that progress was made in the 2014 Farm Bill, but that we can take it further and improve options for these producers.