Trump's Agriculture secretary nominee pressed on proposed ag, rural program cuts

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue 
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters

President Donald Trump's choice to become U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary was pressed Thursday at his Senate confirmation hearing about his support of the administration's planned 21 percent cut to the agency's fiscal 2018 discretionary spending.

"As a member of the administration, I view this budget similar to what as governor [I experienced with cuts]," former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. "I didn't like it … but we managed to it."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the committee's ranking member, told Perdue she was "deeply concerned about the budget put forward by the administration and signals in terms of lack of understanding about agriculture."

Perdue said he had "no input" in the White House's 2018 budget blueprint as it relates to agriculture but expressed support for some programs targeted with cuts without getting into too many specifics.

The former governor's testimony was briefly interrupted by someone screaming. A spokesperson for the committee said this individual left voluntarily after the outburst. No other details were available.

Stabenow went through a series of USDA programs targeted for cuts to gauge Perdue's views, ranging from agriculture and research functions of the agency to support of organic farming and rural programs.

"If I'm confirmed, I am going to … work for agriculture producers and consumers to let this administration and any of the people that are making those decisions in that budget area know what is important to America," he said. "I hope in the context of a balanced or a budget that meets the objectives that we can get agricultural share there. These are important programs; I recognize that."

Perdue said he faced a declining state budget from 2003 to 2011 when he was governor so he was used to doing "more with less" and indicated part of the strategy involves doing things "with efficiency and effectiveness."

He added, "I look forward to engaging this USDA federal workforce in and inspiring them that we can do more. Obviously it takes some money in many of these areas, and I promise you I will be a strong and tenacious advocate for that."

Elsewhere, Perdue was asked if he would provide more support for struggling dairy farmers in the 2018 farm bill, which is under discussion by both houses. Some Senate committee members suggested that the dairy industry was overlooked for assistance in the previous farm bill.

"I am absolutely committed to look for a way that can give immediate and temporary relief even prior to the '18 farm bill," said Perdue, who was raised on a dairy farm. "We've also got to be mindful obviously of budget periods as well. So it has to be within the parameters to meet the budget as well."

Perdue indicated he also would consider short- and long-term support perhaps for the cotton program. Some have criticized the last farm bill for having inadequate agriculture risk protection for cotton farmers.

USDA has been running with an acting deputy secretary in charge. The department is made up of nearly 30 agencies and offices and has about 100,000 employees at more than 4,500 locations across the country and overseas.