Stephen Vaden, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the USDA’s top lawyer, took a bruising today from Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee who raised concerns about his qualifications and what he's written in the past about voting rights.

Vaden, during his employment at the Jones Day law firm, helped file briefs in defense of voter registration laws in North Carolina and Ohio. In the case of North Carolina, the courts struck down the laws, which included the requirement of a photo ID, ruling that they severely discriminated against African Americans.

“Mr. Vaden, I’m deeply concerned that you’ve been involved with efforts to deny minorities the right to vote and reduce access to the polls for everyone,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “I’m concerned about what this might signal for USDA’s approach to these issues."

Vaden, while at Jones Day, worked on a brief requested by the Judicial Education Project to support North Carolina’s voter registration laws that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Not all courts agreed that the voter restrictions were racially motivated, Vaden argued, but several lawmakers dismissed that argument. They focused on the appellate decision that said, “We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., also came down hard on Vaden for his role in the brief on the voter restriction laws, but the nominee was steadfast in his defense that he was just doing his job as a lawyer and that he respected the decision of the courts.

As to whether Vaden's nomination is in jeopardy, Stabenow said she has concerns but added, "It’s not yet clear to me.”

Republicans, of course, control the committee and have the numbers to approve Vaden, but widespread Democratic opposition isn't to be taken lightly. Sam Clovis, Trump's pick to be USDA’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics, ultimately withdrew his name from consideration amid Democratic opposition following revelations that linked him to the investigation into Russian interference in U.S. elections.

Vaden was also assailed on his qualifications to be USDA’s general counsel. Sen. Brown stressed that Vaden, who touted his upbringing on a family farming operation in Tennessee, would have to oversee more than 200 lawyers at USDA and has never held that kind of responsibility.

Vaden countered, reminding senators that he has been essentially doing the job at USDA as “principal deputy general counsel” for the past 11 months.

“I have managed responsibility for those 203 attorneys as well as those 54 support staff," Vaden said. "I have spent the last 11 months in my office at the Department of Agriculture, competently carrying out the functions of my job, both in its managerial and legal responsibilities.”

Also testifying today was Glen Smith, who is nominated to be a member of the Farm Credit Administration Board.

Smith, a farmer and businessman from Atlantic, Iowa, enjoyed a much smoother hearing, addressing concerns from Democrats and Republicans about the need to provide better credit and more support for young farmers who are entering the business at a time of depressed prices and high operating costs.

“As a life-long agriculturalist, I have always considered myself to be an optimist,” Smith said in testimony. “However, I do have to confess that I am very concerned about the current agricultural outlook, particularly with younger, risk-prone producers.”


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