By JIM RUTLEDGE
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Congress heads into its August recess and President Trump heads off on vacation, more than 1,000 top positions needing Senate confirmation throughout the government remain vacant, including more than a dozen senior USDA posts.
At the USDA only Secretary Sonny Perdue has been confirmed, with just three nominees picked for other senior agency seats. Comparatively, during first six months of the Obama administration, 10 senior USDA slots had been nominated and 12 confirmed.
At the state level, all current top USDA leadership posts are vacant. There were no statistics available to compare similar vacancies during the first six months of the past several administrations.
On the final day of Senate action August 3, lawmakers in a flurry of bipartisan action confirmed 65 stalled presidential nominees to top posts across some of the most senior positions in the Trump administration, but left vacant 15 USDA positions until after Congress returns in September.
Among the most senior USDA vacancies are Perdue’s second in command, his deputy, the general counsel, the inspector general and the chief financial officer. As of Aug. 5, the Senate had confirmed just 116 of the more than 1,100 positions requiring the chamber’s vote, and at the USDA only three of Perdue’s top leadership positions have been nominated.
According to statistics provided to Farm World by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, only former President Clinton fared better among the four previous presidents, with 14 USDA posts nominated and confirmed during the first six months of his administration.
President George W. Bush had nominated the most at 18 positions, but only eight had been confirmed by Aug. l. His father, President George H.W. Bush, had nominated 10 officials with nine confirmed.
To date, Trump has nominated just three senior agricultural industry leaders to serve under Perdue: Samuel H. Clovis Jr. as under secretary for Research, Education and Economics, Ted McKinney as under secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs and Steve Censky as deputy secretary. Censky is the CEO of the American Soybean Assoc. McKinney is director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and Clovis serves as the senior White House advisor to Perdue.
Senate observers in media reports have stated both McKinney and Censky should breeze through Senate confirmation while Clovis, as Trump’s former campaign aide, is expected to face serious opposition from the Union of Concerned Scientists for having no formal science training. If confirmed, the former conservative talk radio host will be responsible for administering $3 billion worth of funds, two-thirds dedicated to research.
He has stated publicly he is “extremely skeptical” of climate change science. Censky, if confirmed, will be Perdue’s top deputy, largely overseeing the dayto-day operations at USDA with a $22 billion-plus budget and a staff of 97,800 employees (or fewer, as Trump has proposed cutting the agency’s budget to $17.9 billion and eliminating hundreds of jobs at USDA state service centers around the country).
In the absence of White House nominations, Perdue has named a handful of top appointments to temporarily fill vacant under secretary positions, critical USDA posts that he said are vital to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply. He selected Carmen Rottenberg as acting deputy under secretary for Food Safety and Paul Kiecker as acting administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Both have served in various top administrative roles at the USDA. It’s speculated they could be nominated for these posts or others.
Also last week, Sen. Charles Grassley
(R-Iowa), in speaking with reporters, said
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey
“is expected to be nominated” to a new
USDA post, under secretary of Farm Production
and Conservation. “I don’t know
when he will be announced by the President and actually signing off,” Grassley said. “But I know of nothing that is going to keep him from being under secretary. He’s going to be under secretary in the important roles that the average farmer is concerned about, which is the safety net for agriculture.”
The new slot is part of Perdue’s reorganization effort to streamline the department, with jurisdiction over the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Risk Management Agency (RMS), which also manages the crop insurance program. The move replaces the under secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.
Perdue in June appointed Anne Hazlett as assistant to the secretary for Rural Development, after his reorganization plan abolished the post of under secretary for Rural Development that previously had required Senate confirmation. Hazlett was a former Indiana director of agriculture. A spokesman for the USDA press office said the position will not need Senate confirmation.
In other announcements, Perdue elevated three senior USDA officials to leadership posts. Jason Hafemeister will serve in the newly created position of acting deputy under secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs; Robert Johnson is the acting deputy under secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, while concurrently remaining as the USDA’s chief economist; and Dan Jiron as the acting deputy under secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, with only the USDA’s Forest Service reporting to him.
Other senior vacant posts still waiting nominations are: assistant secretary for Congressional Relations; assistant secretary for Civil Rights; under secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs; and under secretary for Natural Resources and Environment.
In nearly four months, Perdue has filled roughly a few dozen of the 250 political positions in his department. Among the new crop of appointees are Kristi Boswell, a former American Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist, and Rebeckah Adcock, the past senior director of government relations at CropLife America.
To help the administration fill state-level USDA leadership positions, Indiana Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young have put out a call for interested candidates to email resumes and references by Aug. 18 to firstname.lastname@example.org