The Biden administration has been filling positions relatively quickly at departments and agencies other than USDA that have regulatory authority over agriculture, including the Environmental Protection Agency and departments of Labor and Interior Department.
Some of Donald Trump’s nominees to similar positions ran into troubles during the confirmation process and withdrew their names from consideration. A couple more ran into ethical troubles after they were confirmed, limiting their time in office.
Environmental Protection Agency
At the top of the agency, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was confirmed Feb. 17, 2017, less than a month after Trump was inaugurated. Michael Regan, Biden’s choice, was confirmed March 10, 2021. Pruitt cleared the Senate, 52-46, while Regan made it through more easily, on a vote of 66-34.
Pruitt ended up dealing with a string of controversies, including allegations that he used staff to run personal errands for him, spent $43,000 on a soundproof telephone booth for his office, and frequently stayed in hotels that exceeded the allowable government per diem. Pruitt resigned in July 2018, leaving then-Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler to run the agency in an acting capacity until he was nominated and then confirmed in February 2019.
EPA also has its deputy administrator in place; Janet McCabe was confirmed to the number-two spot April 27. Andrew Wheeler, who eventually had to take over for Pruitt, was confirmed for his original deputy post in April 2018, more than a year into the Trump administration.
The Biden administration got a new water chief in at EPA much more quickly than the Trump administration. Radhika Fox was nominated to be assistant administrator of water in April and confirmed just two months later. Trump did not nominate David Ross for the position until September 2017 and Ross was not confirmed until December — six months longer than it took Fox.
The position is especially significant for agriculture because the Biden administration has vowed to rewrite the definition of “waters of the U.S.” in the Clean Water Act. Both Regan and Fox have said they want to find a middle ground between the Trump Navigable Waters Protection Rule and the Obama administration’s WOTUS definition.
EPA lacks a nominee for the Office of Air and Radiation, which plays a key role in determining how to measure emissions from animal feeding operations.
Other EPA positions:
Assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution: The Biden administration was able to get its nominee in place at lightning speed compared to the previous administration. Michal Freedhoff was confirmed June 14. In contrast, Michael Dourson, Trump’s first choice for the job, ran into issues surrounding research he had performed for chemical companies that critics said downplayed risks.
Dourson withdrew his name from consideration in December 2017 after three Republicans said they would not vote for him on the floor. His replacement choice, Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, was nominated in August 2018 and confirmed in January 2019.
Freedhoff has already signaled she wants to emphasize scientific integrity, issuing a memo to staff early in her tenure that said decisions approving dicamba in 2018 as an example where “political interference sometimes compromised the integrity of our science.”
Assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance: The Trump administration got its nominee in office by the end of its first year. Susan Bodine was confirmed Dec. 7, 2017. Biden’s nominee, David Uhlmann, has been referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
Army Corps of Engineers
Assistant Secretary for the Army for civil works: The position will have an outsized impact on farm policy due to the Corps' joint authority with EPA over the Clean Water Act’s wetlands program. The two agencies are working together to come up with a new definition of “waters of the U.S.” under the CWA.
Jamie Pinkham is currently in the position, but Biden has nominated Michael Connor, former commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, for the job. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on his nomination July 14.
The Trump administration nominated R.D. James for the post in October 2017 and he was confirmed in January 2018.
White House Council on Environmental Quality
CEQ is important because it coordinates federal environmental policy, particularly as it relates to the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act. In the Biden administration, Chair Brenda Mallory is taking the lead on the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach to addressing environmental justice.
Mallory was confirmed in April, well ahead of the Trump administration’s chair, Mary B. Neumayr, who was confirmed in January 2019, two years after he took office. Trump’s first pick, Kathleen Hartnett White, was not able to get enough support after she was nominated in October 2017, in part because of comments she made downplaying humans’ role in climate change. Her name was removed from consideration in February 2018.
Both the Biden and Trump administrations got their nominees to head the department in office by March of their first year — Ryan Zinke for Trump and Deb Haaland for Biden. (Like Pruitt, however, Zinke resigned his position, leaving the administration in December 2018 after questions were raised about his real estate dealings in his home state of Montana.)
And the Biden administration continues to push for approval of its nominee for director of the Bureau of Land Management, Tracy Stone-Manning, despite charges by Republicans that she lied about a tree-spiking incident on a national forest from 42 years ago. The Senate on Tuesday voted to discharge her nomination from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a procedural step necessary for her to be considered on the floor.
Haaland will play a key role in helping the Biden administration implement its “America the Beautiful” plan (sometimes called the 30x30 initiative because it seeks to conserve 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030). The BLM director position is important to ag because of BLM’s oversight of grazing on 155 million acres of land.
Fish and Wildlife Service
The Biden administration has yet to nominate anyone to fill the director’s position at the Fish and Wildlife Service, which seems almost to be an afterthought for many administrations when it comes to filling environmental posts.
The Trump administration also did not act with urgency on FWS. Aurelia Skipwith was confirmed as the new director in December 2019 after the position had been vacant since the start of the administration in 2017. FWS implements the Endangered Species Act, long a concern of farmers and ranchers worried about restrictions on their operations because of species listings and critical habitat designations under the ESA.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Doug Parker, nominated to head OSHA, is head of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. His nomination was reported out favorably from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month.
OSHA, which is significant for agriculture because it enforces workplace safety laws, has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since 2017.
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Wage and Hour Division
Jessica Looman is the principal deputy administrator of the division, which is responsible for administering laws to protect ag laborers such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, as well as the H-2A guestworker program.
But Biden has nominated David Weil, former WHD administrator under President Barack Obama, to return to his old position. At his confirmation hearing before the Senate HELP Committee earlier this month, he said, “The pandemic revealed starkly what has been true long before it hit: too many hard-working people who provide essential services fail to receive the pay and treatment that the law requires. That not only harms them, but undermines the social fabric we depend on as communities.”
Food and Drug Administration
One important agency that still lacks a Senate-confirmed leader is the Food and Drug Administration, an agency with vast food safety responsibilities, including the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The Trump administration was able to get Scott Gottlieb confirmed as commissioner in May 2017 after he received unusually strong bipartisan support; the Senate voted 57-42 in favor of him.
After Gottlieb left in April 2019, Stephen Hahn was confirmed to replace him in December 2019.
Janet Woodcock, who has been at FDA since 1986, has been acting commissioner since Biden took office, but is no longer considered the front-runner for the job, CNN reported recently. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is "certainly eager to nominate someone" to lead the agency, but he "wants to make sure we have the right person to nominate, and he's not going to do it at a pace faster than having the right person to put forward."
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