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Stop Using USDA as a Dumping Ground

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Donald Trump’s adviser doesn’t even care if any celebrities show up to inauguration. “You know, this is not Woodstock. It’s not Summer Jam. It’s not a concert. It’s not about celebrities,” adviser Boris Epshteyn told CNN. “As Donald Trump tweeted himself, it’s about the people. That’s what we’re concentrated on.” This kind of attitude is refreshing in Washington. Unfortunately, it is not the approach Mr. Trump is taking when picking his Cabinet, especially his Secretary of Agriculture.

At this writing, the Trump administration has not chosen an individual to be nominated for Secretary of Agriculture.  The media speculation has been getting more intense as the weeks go by. In the beginning, several Hoosiers were on the short list of possible choices; but, as time has passed, more and more names are being added that are further afield.

As this process has continued, a disturbing and all too familiar trend has emerged. Many of the names being bantered about are members of Congress or others with deep political ties.  House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas is inserting himself into the process and reportedly lobbying hard for several Texans.  Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller and former Texas Ag Commissioner Susan Combs have both met with Trump officials about the top USDA job. These two are just the latest in a growing list of politicos who have appeared and then disappeared from the list. Noticeably absent, however, are any farmers or individuals with directed experience in agriculture.

We have not had such a person in this position since the early 1980s.  Presidents from both parties have used USDA as a dumping ground for people who needed to be rewarded for political service or who had some powerful friends on Capitol Hill. President Elect Trump promised to “drain the swamp” when he came to Washington; he could start by not making the Ag secretary a political prize.

As ag policy pundit Patrick Pfingsten pointed out in a recent blog post, “Expecting a billionaire, skyscraper builder from Manhattan to be well-versed of the ins and outs of negotiating a new Farm Bill is much like expecting Gary Truitt to be named the next Miss USA. It’s possible, in theory, but not very likely.”  Media sources say Vice President elect Pence will have a lot to say about who will be the next Ag Secretary. While Mr. Pence certainly knows agriculture, he is also a politician who may have to compromise.

As Pfingsten pointed, out whoever heads the USDA will have a tough task of advocating for agriculture to a Congress full of fiscally conservative, mostly urban Republicans and labor-supported Democrats.  “New Speaker Paul Ryan is far less friendly with ag interests than was former Speaker John Boehner. The Freedom Caucus, composed of the “We don’t like any government at all, period” crowd makes compromising on legislation more difficult. And, with pressure from right-leaning groups like The Heritage Foundation and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the long-standing left-right alliance that has successfully accomplished advancing the legislation since the 70’s is teetering on collapse. “

The USDA itself has become a dumping group for programs that did not fill well into other agencies. The USDA regulates and administers areas as diverse as the Forest Service, food assistance and nutrition, rural housing loans, food labeling, import inspection, environmental regulations, renewable fuel, extension and 4-H programs, commodity checkoff programs, and farm safety net programs. Trump officials looking to pare the size of government would find plenty of fertile soil at the USDA.

Especially during these economically challenging times for agriculture, it is vital we have a strong, articulate, and passionate advocate at the top of USDA.  Rural America helped put the Trump administration in power; they need to respond by putting someone with rural and farming roots and experience at the top of USDA.

By Gary Truitt