The Senate has elected former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue as the new U.S. secretary of Agriculture, following an 87-11 bipartisan vote in his favor today. He was sworn in this morning at 8:45 a.m. by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, eschewing his coat and tie for a more relaxed look.
— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) April 25, 2017
It’s a fun gesture, and suggests a laid-back and down-to-earth personality. But what is Perdue’s story? And what will his legacy likely be, as the newest USDA secretary?
Who Exactly Is Sonny Perdue?
Perdue, 70, grew up on a farm in Bonaire, Georgia. Following college, he served in the Air Force, then became a veterinarian and small business owner. He sold fertilizer and seed to farmers, and bought their production for resale, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. At the time, he was a Democrat—and was elected to the Georgia Senate in 1990 as such.
Perdue became a state senator in 1991, where he served for 10 years. He became a Republican in 1998, and was elected governor in 2003. He was Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, notes NBC.
“Perdue’s upset win in the 2002 race for governor triggered a GOP wave in Georgia, a onetime stronghold for Democrats,” notes the AJC. “Today, both chambers of the Georgia Legislature and all the state’s constitutional officers are Republicans.”
Perdue’s Political and Business Background
Following his final term as governor in 2011, Perdue founded “Perdue Partners,” an Atlanta company “that deals in global trade and focuses on the exporting of U.S. goods,” says NBC. His background in farming and business were both instrumental in procuring him the USDA position.
Perdue is also, notes the AJC, “the managing member of AGrowstar, which purchases and stores corn, wheat and soybeans from farmers, then markets and sells the crops to processors, said Danny Brown, the company’s president. The company has about 3 million bushels of storage capacity at 11 sites in Georgia and South Carolina, Brown said.”
As Perdue told reporters in November, following an interview with President Trump, “He asked me what my skills sets were, and I told him what they were, aside from having been governor, as a business person and primarily in agricultural commodities, trading domestically and internationally.”
Perdue Has Many Ties to Agribusiness
As the above business experience makes clear, Perdue has many ties to agribusiness and commodity farming. As the AJC notes, “The 70-year-old Perdue, a veterinarian by training, has deep ties to agribusiness. That helped him win over Trump, but it could also pose potential conflicts as he seeks confirmation to lead the sprawling $140 billion U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
As ABC reported following Perdue’s appointment, “Perdue [has] assured nervous farm-state senators that he will advocate for rural America, even as Trump has proposed deep cuts to some farm programs.”
But Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth, told McClatchy DC, “We are concerned that Perdue will use his position at the USDA to prioritize the profits of big agribusiness and trade over the interests of American farmers, workers and consumers.”
On the face of it, some may not see a conflict of interest between “agribusiness” and “American farmers.” But the most powerful agricultural lobbyists in Washington DC are often swift to secure government supports that benefit their bottom line and subsidize business risk—rather than actually providing a safety net for the average American farmer.
Take, for instance, the harvest price option (HPO) crop insurance policy, otherwise known as the “Cadillac coverage option of federal crop insurance.” It’s a premium crop insurance policy that gives farmers a payout of “either the standard locked-in price at planting time or the market price at harvest, whichever is higher.” As the Knoxville News Sentinel adds, “In 2012, when corn and soybean prices jumped 32 and 23 percent from planting to harvest, the harvest price option boosted payouts to farmers of both crops by a total of $6 billion.”
A bipartisan coalition in Congress tried to fight the HPO option back in 2015, with the Harvest Price Subsidy Prohibition Act. President Obama then proposed to cut funding for it in 2016. But at his hearing, Perdue “pledged to help senators sustain popular crop insurance programs and fix problems with government dairy programs.” It’s unlikely this particular department secretary will focus his efforts on fighting crony capitalism at the USDA.
Ethics Paperwork Held Up Perdue’s Appointment
Trump announced Perdue as his secretary pick back in January, but it’s taken this long to get him confirmed. That’s because his ethics paperwork was still under review: his time as governor of Georgia was not free of controversy, and during his time in office, the Georgia State Ethics Commission conducted 13 investigations into his actions, although he was only convicted in two cases.
According to a Politico investigation, Perdue “has long mixed personal and political business to benefit his friends and business associates,” and has already “lined up a job” as a USDA senior for former partner and state government employee Heidi Green.
Although Perdue’s 87-11 appointment seems like a large margin, it’s actually the first non-unanimous ag secretary vote since Ronald Reagan’s administration. As Politico reports,
Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) was a nay — she stood alone in opposing Perdue when he cleared the Agriculture Committee last month. This time around, Gillibrand was joined in opposition by Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, and Democrats Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). They defended their votes by citing concerns that ranged from Perdue’s approach to food stamps to trade with Cuba to GMO labeling and a perceived coziness with agribusiness.
Why The USDA Matters
Of course, all of this matters because American agriculture has hit some hard times lately. Stories of rural decline, farmers retiring without successors, and crops no longer bringing in their expected payouts have all dominated headlines lately. Farmers are worried about the future—and they have reason to worry. Perdue’s new job will not be an easy one.
What’s more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture carries serious bureaucratic and financial clout: the department employs more than 100,000 people, and has a budget of around $155 billion. That money goes toward crop insurance, subsidies, scientific research, rural initiatives, and food stamps. And in 2018, we’re going to have to approve another (likely massive) Farm Bill.
Many Americans, on both sides of the political aisle, have called for Farm Bill reform. They complain that our current system of subsidies support the largest agricultural players, and does little to help small, struggling, or fledgling farmers. The USDA has tried to correct some of those critiques by building its microloan and subsidy programs for young, beginning farmers. But many of these dilemmas, especially for smaller family-run farms, still remain.
This All Affects the Rural Trump Voter
This afternoon, President Donald Trump is signing an executive order that creates a rural taskforce “designed to promote agriculture and rural prosperity in America.” As the Washington Free Beacon writes,
Trump will meet with members of the agriculture industry including Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau, and various farmers and ranchers to discuss the issues facing the industry.
‘We will be asking Secretary Perdue to establish a task force that does a 180-day review of regulation and policy, legislation that unnecessarily hinders economic growth in the agriculture area,’ said Ray Starling, the special assistant to the president for agriculture.
Of course, many rural voters are hoping Trump can help reanimate their local economies: offering tax cuts, tariffs, or other regulatory initiatives that might foster growth and bring back jobs. Anything that might offer hope in the face of economic blight and brain drain.
But whether Trump, or his new USDA secretary, can actually achieve such a thing remains to be seen.