Perdue defends proposed shake-up

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 19, 2017

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue yesterday defended his moves to reorganize the Department of Agriculture, including eliminating a high-level position overseeing rural energy and development programs.

“The mission is not going to diminish at all,” Perdue said at a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee, his first appearance before Congress since being confirmed last month.

Perdue sought to assure lawmakers that by eliminating the position of undersecretary for rural development he’s not downgrading the portfolio, which includes bioenergy loans and grants, financing for small rural businesses, and support for clean water and sewer projects.

Perdue said he’ll maintain an assistant secretary for rural development who will report directly to him and that the person will be subject to Senate confirmation.

“If it makes you feel better to call that person undersecretary, enjoy that,” Perdue said, adding that the official will not only manage the programs but have direct access to him.

Perdue pushed back against complaints that taking away an undersecretary’s position might not “elevate” rural development as the department has claimed it will.

“I’m not a micromanager, but I’m a hands-on manager,” Perdue said. “I wanted to be involved in that, and that was the best way I could think of to do that.”

In addition to eliminating the undersecretary position, Perdue would create an undersecretary for trade and put farm and conservation programs under one bureaucratic umbrella.

In addition to formally notifying Congress of the plan, the department will take public comment, although Perdue told the committee he’s not sure exactly how the legal procedures to make the change are supposed to play out.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) called the plan a “major reorganization” and questioned the idea that rural development would grow in stature.

“I’m not sure how that is,” Fudge said.

USDA’s rural development portfolio adds up to about $215 billion, and the agency employs around 5,000 people in related programs.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, said he’ll watch how Perdue’s plan evolves and added, “I take you at your word that you’re going to make that a priority.”

In the Senate, Republican lawmakers said they’ll keep a high profile for rural development. Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) called it “very high on our list” earlier this week.

The administration is in the process of sending agencies more details on its budget proposal for fiscal 2018. But congressional appropriators will have the ultimate say on how funding for Perdue’s plans takes shape.

“We want to make sure the emphasis is still there on rural development,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

Hoeven told E&E News on Tuesday that he’s had several conversations with Perdue about the plans and that the secretary assured him he can make the new setup work.

“He said he’s going to show that it will work, and I look forward to working with him,” Hoeven said, “but I want to make sure that it does.”

At yesterday’s House hearing, Perdue said the other part of the reorganization — moving conservation programs out of the natural resources mission area and putting them with farm programs — would make for a better customer experience with farmers.

Those programs include the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, among others.

“All we’re trying to do is bring the family together,” Perdue said.