Tester endorses Perdue for Ag Secretary; urges speedy confirmation

by David Murray, Great Falls Tribune

It has now been two and half months since Donald Trump was elected President, and the U.S. Senate has not yet scheduled a full vote to confirm former Georgia Governor, Sonny Perdue, as the next Secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

On Wednesday, Montana’s senior senator Jon Tester, publicly endorsed Perdue for ag secretary and urged Senate leaders to speed up the confirmation process.

“As a farmer and as Montana’s senator, I am honored to support Gov. Perdue so we can work together to support family farms and ranches across Montana,” Tester said in a prepared statement. “With planting season upon us, producers need the certainty of having a secretary responsible for strengthening our state’s number one industry.”

Perdue, 70, was the last Cabinet member nominated by President Trump. Unlike more controversial nominations, such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General and Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, Perdue’s nomination has received broad support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Perdue grew up on a Georgia farm and worked as a veterinarian before beginning his political career in the 1990s. He is viewed as both a fiscal conservative and an immigration hawk, who shepherded passage of some of the nation’s toughest measures against illegal immigration during his two terms as the governor of Georgia.

During hearings before the Senate Agriculture Committee on March 23, Perdue enjoyed praise from the senators of both parties, including an endorsement from the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan)

“After a thorough review of his qualifications and priorities, I support the nomination of Gov. Perdue to serve as Agriculture Secretary,” Stabenow said one week after closure of the ag committee hearings. “Although we have some differences on policy, we share a commitment to support American agriculture and strengthen our small towns and rural communities.”

Perdue’s ultimate confirmation seems all but guaranteed, but the real question lies in when the Senate will make time for a full floor vote. The fight over confirmation of nominee for Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch has clogged the Senate schedule. At this point it appears that a vote on Perdue’s nomination could be delayed until sometime in May.

On Tuesday, Sen. Tester submitted a letter to both the Democratic and Republican leadership in the Senate, urging a speedy resolution to the delay.

“There are numerous challenges facing our agricultural communities in Montana and across rural America,” Tester said in addressing both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “Commodity prices are nearing historic lows, the demand for public infrastructure improvements are mounting and the importance of expanding access to new markets is growing. It is vital for there to be strong leadership in place at the United States Department of Agriculture to tackle these challenges.”

Whoever ultimately assumes leadership of the Department of Agriculture will face near immediate controversy. President Trump has proposed a 21-percent reduction in the department’s budget, and his aggressive stance on halting illegal immigration has caused anxiety within some segments of the ag economy, which relies heavily upon foreign labor to get the crops planted, cared for and harvested.

The biggest hurdle for U.S. agriculture on the near horizon is the next Farm Bill. The 2014 Farm Bill took over three years to hammer out, leaving the country without federal legislation on agriculture and food subsidy programs for more than a year and a half.

If anything, the membership of the 2017 Congress is even more widely divided than when the last Farm Bill was presented in 2012. Passage of the mammoth Farm Bill appropriations will require time, patience and subtle bargaining on both sides of the political divide, all of which are commodities Perdue could find in short supply.