Cruz lifts hold; U.S. Senate confirms Bill Northey to USDA post

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Monies Register • Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2018

After months of delay, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey was confirmed to a top U.S. Department of Agriculture post Tuesday.

The 58-year-old Spirit Lake farmer becomes USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation, following a U.S. Senate voice vote.

“While this process has taken longer than expected, I remain as excited as ever to work with Secretary Perdue and the staff at USDA to support of our nation’s farmers and ranchers,” Northey said in a statement.

U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, one of Northey’s strongest proponents, has said he needs the Iowan to help hammer out a new Farm Bill with lawmakers.

“I applaud Bill Northey’s patience over these many months, which demonstrates what a strong leader he will be at USDA,” Perdue said in a statement Tuesday. “Bill will come aboard at a crucial time, as his knowledge and expertise will be immediately put to use.”

Northey’s job will encompass the USDA’s “domestic-facing agencies”: the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Risk Management Agency.

It’s a new configuration under the department’s reorganization.

Northey’s appointment had been blocked by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz over an ethanol dispute since September.

Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst and others met with Cruz, President Donald Trump, Perdue and Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Tuesday to discuss Cruz’s concerns.

Grassley said no ethanol deals were reached. “I didn’t go down there thinking we’d reach a deal, and we didn’t,” Grassley said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “We went down there to have some good discussion.”

Oil proponents blame the close of a Pennsylvania refinery on the cost of complying with the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that biofuels be blended into the national fuel supply.

Iowa is the nation’s top producer of ethanol and biodiesel.

“One good thing came from the meeting: We got the hold on Northey raised,” Grassley said. “Now, he can get to work helping farmers all across the country.”

Ernst said she does not know what role Trump played in convincing Cruz to lit his hold on Northey.

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said Cruz used his “hold on the confirmation vote as a political football in an attempt to undermine the RFS.”

“While it took too long, Senator Cruz finally realized that Northey had no interest in being confirmed on the back of dismantling the RFS,” Shaw said.

Iowa Republicans sent a letter to Cruz this month, saying his ongoing blockade could do lasting damage to his standing in the first-in-the-nation caucus state and perhaps imperil a future run for president.

Cruz said he wanted to meet with the president and Midwest lawmakers about his concerns over ethanol.

Ernst said Cruz kept “moving the bar a bit further — again and again” on releasing his hold on Northey’s confirmation, despite meetings with her, Grassley and top White House leaders.

“We had the very same conversation (Tuesday) that we had in December,” Ernst said, with no different outcome.

Ernst said Trump wants to talk with members of the renewable fuels industry, a meeting that could take place this week.

She said the administration provided no guarantees to Iowa lawmakers that changes wouldn’t be made to the federal biofuels mandate.

“We support our biofuels, Cruz supports his big oil, and we’re going to be fighting this out,” Ernst said.

Northey’s office said his resignation as Iowa agriculture secretary and swearing-in to his new post is still being finalized and would be announced later.

Gov. Kim Reynolds praised Northey on Tuesday and said she plans to name a new ag secretary to fulfill his term, which runs through 2018, soon after he resigns to take his new job.

“Bill Northey is a talented, passionate, hard-working Iowan, and I am excited to see him serve in this new role,” said Reynolds, adding that Northey has provided “rock solid leadership in times of droughts, floods and an avian flu outbreak.”

He has served as Iowa ag secretary for 11 years.

Mark Recker, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association Board, said the group is “thankful to have someone with such a deep agricultural leadership background in this vital position.”

Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said Northey has  been instrumental in “advocating for Iowa farmers seeking new and improved conservation practices.”

Northey led efforts to create Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a plan to reduce by 45 percent the nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the state and contributing to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue talks about the importance of Iowa’s place in the world of agriculture. Michael Zamora/The Register

Bill Shipley, president of the Iowa Soybean Association Board, said Northey’s skills are needed as “issues impacting the profitability of the state’s farmers continue to grow.”

That includes writing a new Farm Bill, “maintaining and opening new trade markets for Iowa-grown soybeans, and keeping policies and regulations in place that favor a strong ag economy,” Shipley said in a statement.

Northey said he deeply appreciated “the people of Iowa” giving him the opportunity to serve as ag secretary.

“Working with and learning from the men and women who make Iowa agriculture the dynamic and productive industry that feeds the world has been the honor of a lifetime,” he said.

Several candidates have lined up for the top ag job after Northey’s nomination to the federal post, including Deputy Ag Secretary Mike Naig and Craig Lang, a former Farm Bureau president.

Iowa Rep. Pat Grassley, a grandson of Sen. Grassley’s, was a front-runner to fill the soon-to-be vacant position, but he’s since decided to run for re-election.