Lawmakers anxious about how the president’s budget would hurt rural America pressed Donald Trump’s pick to run the Agriculture Department for reassurance, and Sonny Perdue made open commitments to nearly every one of their requests.
“If I’m confirmed, I’m gonna get under the boards and get some room and work for agriculture producers and consumers to let this administration and any of the people making decisions in that budget area know what's important to America,” Perdue said at his confirmation hearing.
“These are important programs, I recognize that,” the former Georgia governor said. “I will do everything within my power within the confines of the administration working there to match what our desires are.”
His words were welcomed by lawmakers, who used the hearing to voice deep dismay at Trump’s recent budget proposal, which called for a 21 percent, or $4.7 billion, decrease in spending for the Agriculture Department was further evidence.
“Unfortunately during the two months of the administration, it's clear that rural America has been an afterthought,” said Democratic Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow. “Even before President Trump took office, he sent a message by waiting until the last minute to name his pick for agriculture secretary.”
Perdue, who joked earlier that Trump “saved the best for last” in filling his Cabinet, assured Stabenow and the rest of the committee that he was the strong, tenacious advocate for rural America that they were looking for.
"I think you’re probably aware senator without confirmation, I have had no input in the budget. Obviously I think you probably saw it before I did. I've also had some concern,” Perdue said. “Obviously, as a member of this administration, I view the budget similarly to what as governor when I’d get a revenue estimate I didn’t like as well. I didn’t like it but we managed to it."
Specifically, Perdue pledged support for nearly every issue brought up by the committee, from unstable dairy prices to poor funding for forests to research into opioid addiction and improving broadband access to rural communities.
A number of committee members, including New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, raised questions about immigration reform and temporary work visas.
The two senators argued that immigrants make up the bulk of agricultural workers and were hindered by seasonal temporary work visas for year-round farming.
“If we don’t have proper immigration reform and a debate about holistic policy, it is going to harm families in New York and it’s going to harm agricultural families in upstate New York and Long Island,” Gillibrand said.
Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman and Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett both pushed Perdue on the future of U.S. trade, specifically with Cuba. Perdue said he was open to improving trade with Cuba through private financing in order to support Cuba’s agriculture workforce.
“We have the product they need and they would like the product,” Perdue said. “The big issue I’d heard is with paying for workers.”
Perdue agreed that trade and immigration reform were needed to help American farmers and pledged support to these efforts if given the position.
Perdue’s father was a farmer and his mother a teacher. He graduated from Warner Robins High school and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia. And he referenced this upbringing to emphasize he understands the challenges farmers face.
Perdue’s stance has environmental issues and climate change has some interest groups concerned. He is expected to be tough on environmental regulations while promoting trade. He was endorsed by more than 600 farm and agriculture business in a letter late February.
No committee member pressed Perdue on climate change; he and Trump hold similar environment views with Purdue criticizing climate change in a piece for the National Review.
"It’s become a running joke among the public, and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality," Perdue wrote in 2014.
Last week, he said he would step away from his businesses, including a grain business worth between $5 million and $25 million, according to a financial disclosure form released from the ethics office.
"It should be no surprise that the incoming Trump administration, which has proposed putting executives from Big Food and Big Oil in top cabinet positions, would pick someone like Governor Perdue – who has received taxpayer-funded farm subsidies – to lead the Department of Agriculture,” the Environmental Working Group said in a statement when Perdue was first announced as Trump’s pick mid January. “We hope the Senate will look closely at these subsidies as well as at the political contributions Governor Perdue has received from food giants, farm chemical companies and farm lobbyists, and ask whether he will help fix or help defend a subsidy system rigged against family farmers and the environment.”