Farm Progress

Democrats put roadblocks up preventing Trump’s nominees for ag secretary, USTR ambassador and Supreme Court from crossing finish line.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

March 31, 2017

5 Min Read

Leave it to Washington, D.C., to let politics get in the way of getting work done. And when it comes to some high profile nominees that impact agriculture, it is noticeable.

The Senate Agriculture Committee voted Thursday morning to favorably report nominee Sonny Perdue to serve as the U.S. secretary of agriculture. Perdue, former governor of Georgia, may now be considered by the full U.S. Senate for confirmation; however, it may be May before that happens.

Perdue has the bipartisan support of six past agriculture secretaries and also has the support of more than 650 agricultural groups from across the nation. So, what’s the holdup?

Partisan politics.

At the top of the Senate’s floor schedule is advancing the nomination of Neil Gorsurch to fill the open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. To avoid a filibuster, the Senate needs 60 votes. With only 52 Republicans, Democrats are dragging their feet on Judge Gorsuch, who didn't have a single dissenting vote when he was confirmed by the Senate for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall wrote a letter to the full Senate Thursday calling for swift confirmation. “There is no rational basis to oppose his confirmation,” Duvall wrote. “Tactics to block a vote on this nomination appear to be cynical tit-for-tat politics. The public deserves better.”

He noted that Supreme Court decisions affect farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to be productive. “Important cases are expected to be coming up, and we need a full Supreme Court to provide for the full functioning of our third branch of government. Most important, we need a justice as qualified and dedicated as Judge Gorsuch,” Duvall said.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised that Gorsuch will get Senate approval. If Democrats don’t cross party lines, McConnell could impose the “nuclear option,” which would allow only a simple majority.

For Democrats, this is about Republicans failing to ever hold a confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. For Republicans, this is about Democrats taking the extraordinary step in 2013 to lower the bar to break filibusters to from 60 votes to 51 for all Executive Branch nominees except Supreme Court nominees.

Several Senate Democrats from farm states who voted for Trump in 2016 will be up for re-election in 2018 and could end up breaking with the party. This includes Sens. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Jon Tester, D- Mont., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V.

If the Senate gets bogged down with the Gorsuch vote during the week of April 3, it could be May before Perdue sees time on the Senate floor. The Senate goes on recess April 7 for two weeks and returns just five days before the stopgap spending bill expires on April 28.

Reports Thursday indicated that Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he holds hope that a vote can still be scheduled next week, however it would have been more probable had the Perdue committee vote taken place Wednesday as originally planned. Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she will urge Democrat leaders to allow the vote to come up on the floor.

This once again reinforces the need to get Perdue confirmed as Congress deals with deep budget cuts proposed by the Trump Administration without anyone advocating on behalf of agriculture.

“I’m pleased our committee has made swift strides to move Gov. Perdue’s nomination closer to the finish line,” Roberts said following the favorable vote Thursday morning. “Our farmers and ranchers have been waiting too long for this important position to be filled. We need to get Gov. Perdue down to USDA to get to work. Rural America is ready.”

Stabenow also voted in support of Perdue’s nomination, saying, “Although we have some differences on policy, we share a commitment to support American agriculture and strengthen our small towns and rural communities.”

During his nomination hearing, Perdue, who served as both a Democrat and Republican during his days in the Georgia legislature, highlighted his ability to work across party lines.

“It’s important to note that the makeup of (the Senate Agriculture) Committee speaks directly to the size, reach and diversity of America’s agricultural sector and that reaching across the aisle is common practice within this committee, where partisanship doesn’t get in the way of good solutions for American farmers, ranchers and consumers,” Perdue said during the committee hearing. “To that end, if confirmed as the secretary of agriculture, I look forward to working with you … each of you … to find solutions to the challenges confronting American agriculture.”

Since his inauguration, 21 of the President's nominees have been confirmed, but there are 41 positions total awaiting confirmation and 491 still waiting on a nomination. That's out of 553 key positions requiring a Senate confirmation, according to the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post.

Nominee for U.S. Trade Representative ambassador Robert Lighthizer is another notable nomination that hasn't crossed the finish line. While his nomination hearing was largely without fireworks, a number of senators are insisting Lighthizer must receive a waiver from Congress in order to serve as USTR due to his past work representing foreign governments.

In a floor speech Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the office of USTR  needs to be fully functional and fully staffed. Unfortunately, up to now, some on the other side have been making unreasonable and wholly unrelated demands in relation to the confirmation of President Trump’s nominee to be USTR. I’m hoping we can make progress on this very soon,” he said.

It’s time to put partisan politics aside and move the nominations along. Otherwise, agriculture will continue to be underrepresented.


About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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