May 16, 2017

USDA Proposes a Reshuffle

Jacob Sztraicher, Owen Taylor

On inauguration day when President Trump said “America first,” rural citizens may not have expected what that could mean. At a speech in Cincinnati last Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue officially announced the creation of a Trade Under Secretary at the Department of Agriculture, which marks the first significant proposal to change the USDA since 1994. On trade, the inconsistency between Perdue and Trump, who routinely called for withdrawing from and “ripping up” NAFTA, has already evidenced itself. We recently learned that it was Secretary Perdue who played a pivotal role in Trump’s retreat from previous attacks on international trade. By illuminating electoral maps depicting regions that’d be most disproportionately affected by a withdrawal, Perdue persuaded the president to consider relaunching NAFTA negotiations. Now Perdue must persuade Congress and the public to create his new trade post at the USDA.

Coinciding with the announcement of the new trade post, the administration also proposes to eliminate the Under Secretary of Rural Development, transitioning it to a non-Senate confirmed role of “Special Assistant to the Secretary.” The reshuffling could have severe implications for the agency’s efforts throughout rural America. To alleviate fears that the new trade post would not usurp the Rural Development mission, Secretary Perdue stated that the rural development office within USDA would report directly to the office of the Secretary.

Support for the creation of the new trade post has roots in the prior administration. The 2014 Farm Bill contained critical language advising the USDA to create a new Under Secretary post dedicated to making trade-related work a priority within the agency. However, USDA was never legally mandated to eliminate an Under Secretary to accommodate this trade post. While former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had previously explored this very amendment in the Farm Bill, he ultimately determined that the agency’s numerous international trade activities would over complicate such a move. In contrast, during his Senate confirmation hearing in March, Sonny Perdue reiterated his commitment to establishing such a post, as well as prioritizing agricultural trade under his leadership.

While the creation of the trade post itself has existing support, the elimination of the Under Secretary of Rural Development may not. The expansive nature of USDA’s Rural Development’s portfolio is one reason the removal of this position is an unusual move by the Trump administration. The Under Secretary of Rural Development leads an over $200 billion portfolio which supports many underserved communities, and provides guidance to the Secretary regarding three USDA mission areas that focus on improving the economic well-being of rural America: the Rural Housing Service, the Rural Utilities Service and the Rural Business-Cooperative Service.

Together, these operations overseen by the Under Secretary of Rural Development provide critical infrastructure investments in rural America. With the impact of the proposed reorganization on these mission areas in question, lawmakers and rural development advocates are concerned. The Agriculture Secretary has a large mandate as it is, and demoting the Rural Development mission area from Under Secretary status to an office within the USDA leaves only one person with a standing invitation to advocate for rural development in the Trump White House and only one person held accountable to Congress.

While some view the Secretary’s announcement as a significant reversal of USDA’s commitment to rural development, the reorganization is subject to a lengthy review process before it can be implemented. Before implementing the conclusions of the report, the Secretary’s reorganization plan is subject to the following statutory provision:

“(3) Report. — Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act and before the reorganization described in paragraph (1) can take effect, the Secretary shall submit to the agriculture committees and subcommittees a report that-(A) includes the results of the proposal under this section; and (B) provides a notice of the reorganization plan. (4) Implementation. –Not later than 1 year after the date of the submission of the report under paragraph (3), the Secretary shall implement a reorganization of international trade functions for imports and exports of the Department of Agriculture, including the establishment of an Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.”

On May 11, Secretary Perdue submitted the aforementioned report to the congressional agriculture committees and subcommittees. In the meantime, interested parties are welcome to express their support or opposition to the plan in the respective House and Senate committees or on the White House website. Prime will continue monitoring these developments.