Transition Musings

By Kathleen Merrigan, GW Food Institute Director

January 6th check-out white board at the EEOB. People are leaving – when will their replacements arrive?

January 6th check-out white board at the EEOB. People are leaving – when will their replacements arrive?

Tick tock. My alarm goes off and I think – today is the day when we will finally get a nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. But I am disappointed again. Twelve days until the Inauguration and President-elect Trump has yet to select someone to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the fifth largest federal department, with more than 100,000 employees and a budget nearing $150 billion. Some of my friends inside the transition assure me that an announcement will come soon and that there are good people in the mix. I’m glad to hear this, and I’d rather we get the right person than rushing to meet a January 20th deadline. That said there are real consequences to this delay.  I’ve been involved in three transitions, so I have perspective on the changing of the guard and what it takes to be successful.

My first transition experience was as a member of the team preparing Mike Espy for his confirmation hearing, President-elect Clinton’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. Although Mike Espy was no stranger to USDA and agriculture politics, having been in Congress for several terms, including serving on the House Agriculture Committee, there was still significant work for him to do prior to his hearing. In another post, I’ll opine on the breadth of USDA’s mission, its 17 agencies, and hundreds of programs. It is a complicated bureaucracy; Senators on the Agriculture Committee understand this and don’t expect the nominee to know everything about USDA.  But they expect the nominee to be able to answer basic questions related to nutrition assistance, forest health, conservation, farm payments, crop insurance, international trade, food safety, research, and rural development. Mike Espy did his homework and he met with success, becoming the 25th Secretary of Agriculture on January 22, 1993.  If President-elect Trump’s nominee is unfamiliar with USDA, the preparation time will be more extensive than what was required for Secretary Espy, or me for that matter. When preparing for my own confirmation hearing as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in early 2009, I spent long days going through briefing books, I met individually with many members of the Senate Agriculture Committee prior to my hearing, and was tested twice in “mock” confirmation hearings, all which helped me prepare for the big day.  At this late date, it is difficult to imagine that there is enough time for even a candidate with deep knowledge of USDA to do all that is required to face the Committee before Inauguration.

My second experience with transition followed the unusually long election cycle of 2000.  Remember when those hanging chads and a razor thin margin triggered a vote recount in Florida, delaying a final call on the election between Al Gore and George Bush? It wasn’t until December 12th, when the Supreme Court ruled to end the recount, that we knew with certainty that George Bush would become our next president. Even though it was 35 days post-election day, President-elect Bush swiftly nominated his cabinet and Ann Veneman was sworn in as the 27th Secretary of Agriculture January 20, 2001.

During this period, I was a Clinton political appointee, serving the last 22 months of his administration as the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator. It was a tumultuous time for political appointees, as we went through stages of grief following the election and faced unemployment. But more than anything, many of us were focused on getting as much work done as possible before our time in office ended. I was particularly pressed to complete the final rule to establish the National Organic Program, and all the standards, certification and accreditation procedures that accompanied it. Hundreds of thousands of people had commented on the proposed rules and I felt a huge responsibility to turn all the work into something that would strengthen and grow the organic sector. To great fanfare, we published the final rule in the Federal Register December 21, 2000.  But would it stand the test of time? Like every incoming administration, President-elect Bush directed his transition team to review recently adopted rules for possible removal. So, along with career and political appointees alike, I breathed a sigh of relief when Dave Johnson was announced as the lead for USDA transition (and eventually Deputy Chief of Staff); Dave had the experience and temperament for the job and, together with Ann Veneman, was certain to provide the kind of leadership USDA deserved. Despite what people say about partisan bickering in Washington, there are many friendships that transcend politics, including mine and Dave’s which began when we were both staff members of the Senate Agriculture Committee and worked together on the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, among other things.

Right now, people are anxious at USDA – they want to keep working uninterrupted and for many things to happen, sign-off from the top executive is required.  I know that the delay in nominating a Secretary has a psychic impact on employees. They care deeply about the programs they run and the constituents they serve. I am maddened by disparaging and unfair caricatures of government workers. When we were rushing to finish up that final organic rule, I had USDA employees pulling all-nighters and working weekends to meet critical deadlines, not because I asked them to do so, but because they were passionate about the mission. Right now, I imagine many USDA employees, along with those they serve in Rural America, are feeling last in line as they stand up the Trump Administration and that’s an ego crusher.

My third experience with transition was for the Obama Administration. President-elect Obama announced Tom Vilsack as his nominee for Secretary of Agriculture December 17th 2008 and he was sworn into office as the 30th Secretary of Agriculture January 20, 2009.  Governor Vilsack had called me in December to tell me that I had been selected as Deputy Secretary and the vetting process began in earnest. FBI agents traveled across the country to visit people I encountered in my past, my tax returns and publications were scrutinized, I filled out extensive forms, and I was interviewed multiple times by ethics lawyers.  And unlike those few cabinet officials typically nominated prior to Inauguration, there is a glut of nominees being processed simultaneously once the new Administration starts. So things can only go as fast as there are available people to do the vetting. But the Obama Administration was working as fast as it could.  My vetting had begun in December, and all subcabinet nominees were in vetting at the Presidential Personnel Office by first week of February.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has traditionally asked nominees to complete an extensive questionnaire as part of its background investigation. This is in addition to the questionnaires and interviews required by the Office of Government Ethics. I don’t think it’s a big secret that I had hoped a Hillary Clinton victory might put me on her short list for Secretary of Agriculture.  As the election drew near, I started to think about amassing all the paperwork that I might be lucky enough to submit – everything I’d ever written, press interviews, contact information for anyone who had worked regularly at my home such as a landscaping service, exact dates and locations of everywhere I had ever lived. The list goes on.  One interesting aspect, and a current hot topic with some of President-elect Trump’s current nominees, is the financial disclosures that must be made so the Senate Agriculture Committee and the White House can assess whether there could be a financial conflict of interest. In 2008, my husband and I were, as we are today, college professors. We did not have lots of extra money, but we did own small amounts of three individual stocks – all of which were related to the organic industry.  I was told that I could not engage in anything related to organic agriculture until I sold those stocks to free myself from a ‘conflict of interest.’  My husband always reminds me that the morning after we sold one stock, it split – if we had held onto it for one more day, we would have possibly paid for a year of college for one of our kids.  But it was the price you pay to serve the public, something that I hope President-elect Trump will demand of his appointees, consistent with longstanding ethics rules.

I was lucky by the way.  The Senate Agriculture Committee held my confirmation hearing the afternoon of April 3 and I was confirmed unanimously by the full Senate April 4, 2009.  It doesn’t get better than that!  I went on to serve four years, one month as Deputy Secretary. It was an incredible honor to work for people in Rural America, for farmers and ranchers, and for people participating in USDA’s many nutrition assistance programs.  As I await news on the forthcoming nominee for Secretary and his/her team, I also stand ready to help them in any way possible. I hope they enjoy the experience as much as I have over the years.

Time to check my watch.