Inside D.C.

Perdue “elevates” rural affairs

Some aggies this week are running around with their hair on fire because Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is reorganizing USDA to find room for a new undersecretary for trade, and the cost of that move is elimination of a formal undersecretary for rural affairs.  The fear is that Perdue, as mouthpiece for the White House, is giving short shrift to all things rural.

This might make some sense if the ag secretary wasn’t Perdue with his small town Georgia roots and publicly promised personal priority on rural issues, had not the president by executive order created on April 25, The Task Force on Agriculture & Rural Prosperity with Perdue sitting as chair of the intergovernmental endeavor, and had Perdue not chosen Anne Hazlett as his special assistant for rural affairs.

Perdue says Hazlett’s resume makes her “perfectly suited for the role.”  It would be tough to find anyone in town who knows more about rural affairs than Hazlett.  She serves today as chief counsel to the Republican majority on the Senate Agriculture Committee.  She’s worked rural issues for more than 15 years, serving as ag adviser to former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, as chief of staff to former Indiana Lt. Governor Becky Skillman, and was a key player in creating Indiana’s Office of Community & Rural Affairs.

In addition to her expertise and smarts, part of Hazlett’s attraction for Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts (R, KS) must be her agricultural communications degree from Kansas State University.  She also got her law degree from Indiana University and a masters in agricultural law from the University of Arkansas.  Talk about geographically correct.

In a town which is impressed more by someone’s title than their ability, Hazlett is to be commended for taking her “assistant” role.  Not being an undersecretary – admittedly an impressive title – allows Hazlett and Perdue to jump start his rural affairs emphasis , given the nomination and Senate confirmation process takes months when it should take weeks.  Without the bureaucracy and politics of an undersecretary’s office, Hazlett and Perdue can, as the secretary put it, “get to go, no-go decisions” quickly.  Perdue makes no secret he sees this realignment as a “elevation” for rural affairs within USDA.  “With this addition to USDA rural development, rural America will have a seat at the main table and have walk-in privileges with the secretary on day one,” he said.

Some Democrat lawmakers aren’t buying Perdue’s explanations.  Senate ag panel ranking member Sen, Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D, OR), ranking member on the Senate appropriations panel’s ag/FDA subcommittee, sent Perdue a letter venting their misgivings with his department realignment.

However, this week Perdue told Merkley during the secretary’s testimony on FY2018 USDA appropriations that he and he alone is accountable for the success or failure of rural development programs at USDA.  “If I don’t make you proud of what we do with rural development over the next year, I’ll be happy to have another undersecretary for rural development directed by the (2018) Farm Bill,” Perdue said.

Perdue said at the first meeting of the White House task force on ag and rural prosperity this week that the cabinet-wide membership of the group will allow it to produce a “serious plan” for eliminating federal government impediments to rural growth, both economically and socially.  Reminding attendees the task force’s Trump mandate to improve the lot of rural America is “an executive order, not a suggestion,” Perdue said working groups will tackle quality of life issues, rural workforce needs, innovation, technology/data, and economic development.


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