Our 11th Hour Nominee for Secretary of Agriculture

By Kathleen Merrigan, GW Food Institute Director

Today President-Elect Trump announced his nominee to lead USDA – former governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue.  Many food and agriculture groups have issued statements about the nomination and while they have differing opinions about Governor Perdue there is universal relief that someone has been named.  Sadly, in so many press stories over the past weeks the USDA Secretary is described as a “low profile” cabinet post explaining, in part, why USDA is the very last cabinet department to get a nominee.  I get so irritated when I read such things – both because I so strongly disagree with the depiction of USDA as an after-thought and because, in some ways, the assessment is not wrong.  As deeply as we, dear readers, care about food and agriculture, the issues with which the new Secretary must contend are not headliners for most people.  But that doesn’t mean USDA is unimportant.  The decisions that Governor Perdue will soon face matter very much and somehow we must reinforce the importance of USDA and its work.  Here are some thoughts on 10 challenges he will face on day one when he walks into his new office.

#1 Establishing a subcabinet and selecting senior staff and state directors

The new Secretary will need to build his team of leaders. This includes working with the White House to select a deputy secretary and at least seven under secretaries (I say at least because the Trump Administration may decide to nominate an eighth under secretary for trade), all of whom go through their own confirmation hearings. He will need to find leaders for important administrative offices such as general counsel, assistant secretary of congressional affairs and assistant secretary for administration.  He will select his chief of staff and senior advisors to join him in his suite.  And not least, he will, working with the White House and members of Congress, select two senior leaders for each state – the state director for the Farm Services Agency and state director for Rural Development.  With so many aspirants to these jobs, necessary background checks, and desire for diversity of all kinds, these decisions will occupy significant time in the early weeks in office.  

#2 Reviewing regulations

The President-elect has discussed the need to put an end to burdensome regulations and his campaign website articulates his regulatory vision. Many of my colleagues are very worried about this, but I have a wait and see attitude.  Most modern day presidential transitions have included a regulatory lookback of some sort.  I know that early on as deputy secretary I was asked to lead a review of regulations to figure out what could be eliminated or streamlined.  It’s a natural impulse for an incoming Administration to review what exists and search for inefficiencies.  All leaders want to make claims about how they reduced unnecessary regulation, as well as how they saved taxpayer dollars.  This call for review should not be surprising, or even necessarily scary, but it will occupy significant time of our future Secretary and his team.  Hopefully they will move forward with caution and fully recognizing that regulatory actions are guided by the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 and thus require transparency and public input.   

#3 Moving forward on GMO labeling

Congress kicked the can down the road by leaving the details of a GMO labeling scheme to USDA.  Secretary Vilsack got to work right away following congressional action; he wasn’t trying to run the clock. But there were too few days left in the Obama Administration to get across the finish line. The incoming Secretary will be faced with this very divisive issue. Good luck!

#4 Adding a flourish to the FY2018 budget proposal

Although congressional action on the Fiscal Year 2017 budget has not concluded, and the new Secretary will likely weigh in when final decisions are made in Congress, it is also time to launch the FY18 executive budget proposal.  Typically, with a new team coming in the door, the launch is somewhat delayed.  But it is reasonable to expect that sometime in March the President will release a budget proposal so Congress can begin its work (President Obama submitted his first executive budget proposal on February 26, 2009). In the first year of a new administration, there isn’t much time to completely redo the executive budget proposal, which takes months to develop.  But we can expect that President-elect Trump and his cabinet will want to make room for some of their signature issues.  The new secretary will have to figure out what those will be, in consultation with the President and OMB.    

#5 Devising a farm bill engagement strategy

Congress is gearing up to enact a new farm bill in 2018. This year the hearing process will begin in earnest, and we can expect to see lots of bills introduced by members who hope that their ideas will be incorporated into the forthcoming omnibus farm bill. Oftentimes farm bills are delayed, but the dairy and cotton sectors are keeping the pressure on to meet the 2018 deadline.  The new Secretary will need to decide how he wants to engage in the farm bill process.  Many past administrations have sent printed booklets to Congress that described their recommended actions; Secretary Johanns went so far as to send actual bill language to Capitol Hill. Taking the completely opposite approach, Secretary Vilsack did not send a proposal of any kind to Congress, preferring to engage behind the scenes and respond to congressional requests.   What strategy will Governor Perdue choose?   

#6 Keeping an ear open  

People are always surprised when I tell them I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day in the office the first year I served as Deputy trying to figure out the best counter proposal to an OMB  budget proposal to eliminate all farm subsidy support for farmers  – cold turkey.  Not only would Congress have rejected the proposal, but it would have made the new Administration look foolish.  I didn’t agree with OMB and went to work.  You may be thinking  — Merrigan, she’s the organic/sustainable ag person, right?  Yes and no. Those issues are near and dear to my heart and rank high as personal priorities. But as Deputy, I was responsible for all of American agriculture.  I took that challenge seriously and tried to become an expert in all issues from A to Z.  We are lucky that the incoming Secretary knows much about agriculture. But to lead USDA and American agriculture, and to maintain the interest of the young people who we need to repopulate our working lands and rural communities, the new Secretary will need to signal, from day one, that he represents the spectrum of interests before USDA and wants to hear from all sides.

#7 Avoiding a trade war

This may be the most interesting of all challenges, given that Governor Perdue has been actively involved in agricultural trade as a private businessman.  U.S. agriculture is very export dependent.  Yet President-elect Trump has railed against trade, promising to renegotiate NAFTA and abandon the Transpacific Partnership, among other things.  The new Secretary will need to bring ‘reason’ to the White House, which may not be easy following a campaign of rhetoric that is so antithetical to American agriculture.

#8 Communicating to POTUS the importance of undocumented workers in the food and ag sector

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There is no sector more dependent on undocumented workers than food and agriculture, from the people who harvest our crops to the people behind the lunch counter and everyone in between.  One of my biggest disappointments of my time as Deputy was that I was unable to move immigration reform forward.  Early on in my tenure, leaders of fruit and vegetable companies told me that if things didn’t change, they would necessarily shift their operations to other countries.  Things have only gotten worse since then.  The new secretary will need to figure out how to convey to President Trump that immigration reform is good for America.  

#9 Navigating climate concerns

Not all farmers are comfortable using the language “climate change” but they nearly all despair over the extreme weather events that impact their operations.  The new Secretary will need to figure out how to address the issue of climate change, particularly given the campaign rhetoric of President-elect Trump.  With drought conditions and a changing plant hardiness zone map,  Governor Perdue will need to find a way to help farmers cope with climate realities but do so in a way that ‘fits’ the new President’s interesting take on science.  Agriculture is responsible for roughly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions globally and that percentage will only grow as other sectors (like transportation and energy) move more quickly toward renewables.  Agriculture hasn’t been the focus of climate talks so far, but unless it starts to get serious about climate change, the sector will be in a bad spot.  And the target isn’t going to be smallholder farmers in the developing world.  

#10 Finding an effective leadership style

You see different accountings of how many people USDA employs.  Part of the reason for this is that USDA dollars fully fund many state employees who carry out USDA’s work. Some people count such people as state employees; others count them as USDA employees.  I don’t want to get stuck on this point – let’s say that, at a conservative count, USDA has 90,000 employees.  Only 10 percent of these employees are located in the DC-metro area. The others are spread across 50 states and 99 countries.  The new Secretary will be challenged to connect with and lead this mass of people.  To use President-elect Trump’s beloved phrase, believe me, there is no memo that can be issued to move such a giant bureaucracy. How will Governor Perdue inspire, enthuse, and motivate the tens of thousands of employees, most of whom he will never meet in person? How does he transmit his priorities to his new employees?  This is something I thought a lot about when I was deputy. On every trip, I asked my staff to set up a visit at a local USDA office – in some cases I met USDA staff that had never met even an agency administrator let alone someone higher up in the bureaucracy.  Just one strategy among many that Tom Vilsack and I had to relate to career employees.

IN CONCLUSION  In establishing USDA, President Lincoln famously called it The People’s Department.  USDA headquarters sits on the Washington mall, which many refer to as America’s front lawn.  I wish Governor Perdue luck and hope that he enjoys the work of USDA Secretary as much as the view from his office windows. More than anything, I hope he succeeds in elevating the status of USDA among government agencies.