Six weeks later, senators question delay on agriculture pick

Six weeks later, senators question delay on agriculture pick

March 4th, 2017 by Associated Press in Breaking News

In this Feb. 1, 2017, file photo, Agriculture Secretary-designate, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue attends a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trump tapped Perdue to be his agriculture secretary six weeks ago, but the administration still hasn't formally provided the Senate with the paperwork for the nomination. The delay is frustrating farm-state senators, who represent many of the core voters who helped elect Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump picked former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to be his agriculture secretary six weeks ago, but the administration still hasn't formally provided the Senate with the paperwork for the nomination.

The delay is frustrating farm-state senators, who represent many of the core voters responsible for helping elect Trump.

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The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee needs the paperwork before the chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, can schedule a confirmation hearing.

"I don't know yet," Roberts, R-Kan., said Wednesday when asked about Perdue's information. "I wish to hell I did. We need a champion for agriculture, we need him on board."

Roberts also complained about the delay at a committee hearing in Kansas last week. He predicted that Perdue would be confirmed quickly once the Senate can get started on the nomination.

The White House said the paperwork, including ethics forms and an FBI background check, is coming soon. The only other nomination that hasn't been sent to Capitol Hill is that of Alexander Acosta, who was nominated to be labor secretary on Feb. 16 after the withdrawal of the original nominee, Andrew Puzder.

Senators say they haven't been given an explanation for the delay involving Perdue.

"They don't seem to have a reason as to why his name hasn't come up," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters after asking around about the Perdue nomination.

The delay comes as some farm-state lawmakers question whether Trump is paying enough attention to rural areas, which overwhelmingly voted for him.

After Trump's address to Congress on Tuesday night, Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Jon Tester of Montana both noted that the president didn't specifically mention rural America in his hourlong speech. Both senators are up for re-election in 2018.

"There wasn't a mention of rural America, a farm bill, or agriculture workers, and these should be focuses for any leader of our country," Heitkamp said, noting that President Barack Obama often omitted farm country in his speeches to Congress as well.

"You wonder why people in rural America feel left out and feel disenfranchised? Because they never hear anything about them," she said.

Tester said lawmakers need to keep rural issues "front and center" for the new president, who is from New York City.

"The tendency is to go where you know, and I'm not sure he knows rural America very well, so it's just an opportunity to remind him that you've got to pay attention," Tester said.

Some farm-state Republicans pushed back on the idea that Trump is not engaged.

"He talked about rolling back regulations, and he talked about things that really matter in rural America," South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds said of Trump's speech.

While Trump began picking department heads in November, he waited until Jan. 18, two days before his inauguration, to choose an agriculture secretary. At the time, farm-state lawmakers and farm groups said they worried that the new pick would be at a disadvantage getting started.

In the weeks since he was chosen, Perdue has held several meetings with senators on Capitol Hill. Farm-state senators have mostly praised his nomination, including Democrat Heitkamp, who said she would support him.

Perdue, 70, is a farmer's son who would be the first Southerner in the post in more than two decades. He built businesses in grain trading and trucking before becoming the first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction. After his governorship, he co-founded a company called Perdue Partners that helped American companies export their goods, including agricultural products.

It's unclear whether any of his business interests are causing the holdup. The forms in question are financial disclosures certified by the Office of Government Ethics and also written ethics agreements between the nominee and the office that identify potential conflicts of interest and the ways in which the nominee will resolve those conflicts. They are required by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, passed after the Watergate scandal.

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the agriculture panel, said she doesn't know what the holdup is.

"The only thing I know is that he has agricultural-related businesses," she said. "I know this is a common way things have been held up."

Before Trump's inauguration, the head of the ethics office complained that the new administration was not filing forms quickly enough as the Senate started to hold hearings.

Director Walter Shaub said in January that part of the problem was that Trump announced nominees before consulting the office for evaluation of ethics issues. Traditionally, a president's or president-elect's picks have not been announced until the office has cleared the nominees, Shaub said at the time.

While Perdue's nomination is pending, acting Agriculture Deputy Secretary Mike Young is in charge.