WASHINGTON, May 3, 2017 - Sonny Perdue was confirmed as the 31st secretary of agriculture just over a week ago. But he had plenty of days waiting on his confirmation to think about departmental priorities. Much of his thinking was shaped during visits with 75 senators as part of his confirmation process, where he clearly learned about priorities from members of the upper chamber.
The number-one, -two and -three Senate priorities were “trade, trade and trade,” Perdue told members of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting during a briefing Tuesday. Labor and regulatory issues were the fourth and fifth most frequently mentioned, respectively.
Perdue, who helped persuade President Trump last week to renegotiate rather than exit the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), offered several key points on trade, which he described as one of his key responsibilities. “The good news is that I’m a ‘grow it and sell it’ kind of guy,” he added.
The former Georgia governor says he has already developed a great relationship with other key White House trade players, including Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and predicted that he would also work well with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer when he’s confirmed.
“He (Ross) has already been engaged on several ag issues, like sugar. He wants to know more about our thoughts on NAFTA. There will be some interagency cooperation like you’ve not seen in the past,” Perdue emphasized. From all indications, he’ll need a strong team effort to combat some of the more protectionist advisors on the White House staff. On other trade-related issues:
Opening Chinese markets. Perdue said progress is being made on re-opening Chinese markets to U.S. beef. Last week, President Trump asked Perdue to write a letter to President Xi and “tell him of our willingness and desire to get U.S. beef into China.” Then Trump planned to put a personal note along with the letter.
“Those are the kinds of personal relationships that matter,” Perdue explained, while also noting that he planned to be “latched at the hip” with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to China. Perdue expressed optimism that Trump’s team could also address trade disputes on ethanol, distilled-dried grains, and genetically modified organism trait approvals.
New Undersecretary for Trade. The Agricultural Act of 2014 gave USDA a directive to develop and report on a reorganization plan – leading to the establishment of a trade under secretary position – but previous USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack was reluctant to make the farm bill changes during the waning days of the Obama administration. Perdue says he plans to create an under secretary for trade position, but did not provide details as to how he would separate the USDA mission areas with trade responsibilities. “With FSA, we want employees to think about serving our farmers day in and out; at the Foreign Agriculture Service, we want employees to wake up each day thinking about, ‘How do I sell more.’”
Sugar. The Department of Commerce (DOC) announced earlier this week that it would end the antidumping and countervailing duty suspension agreements in place with Mexico and impose duties on Mexican sugar beginning June 5, unless the two countries can reach an accord before then to stop Mexico’s unfair trading practices. Perdue said he was hopeful that both sides could still cut a deal.
“I hope everyone will come to the conclusion that it’s in their best interest to meet somewhere in the middle. We aren’t asking sugar beet or cane producers to do things that are not in their best long-term interest…I’m not going to ask anybody to sign a deal that’s going to put them out of business, but we do want them to think long and hard about the consequences of the U.S. procuring raw sugar at the world market at lower prices than we are paying today.”
Spencer Chase contributed to this article