WASHINGTON, June 14, 2017 - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue doesn’t expect a deputy secretary or undersecretaries to be in place at the Agriculture Department before September. The White House has given six names to the FBI and Office of Government Ethics for clearance, but all the candidates are still waiting, Perdue said.

Testifying before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, Perdue expressed frustration with what he said were delays at both agencies. “We’ve submitted some very capable names that you all would be very proud to confirm,” Perdue said.  The names won’t be formally submitted to the Senate for confirmation until they are cleared by FBI and OGE. Agri-Pulse was first to report some of the key names.

Perdue said the delays were one reason that the Rural Development agencies would benefit from his decision to abolish the undersecretary for rural development and instead hire an assistant to run RD, Anne Hazlett, who will answer directly to him. “Rural Development was too important to wait, and we chose to go to work right away,” Perdue told the senators.

After the hearing, Perdue was asked by a reporter what decisions were piling up because of the absence of Senate-confirmed leadership under him. “Not many decisions, but I’m tired of working 22 hours a day,” he quipped.

 During the hearing, Perdue continued to back away from the deepest cuts that President Trump proposed in his fiscal 2018 budget. In an exchange with the chairman of the full committee, Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Perdue said the proposed cuts in USDA research went too far. “I would admit to you that research is one of those areas where we may have missed the mark and I believe that we can work toward right-sizing the budget. Research is the basis of our agricultural productivity today,” he said.

Later in the hearing, Perdue broadened the list of cuts that may be excessive to include crop insurance, rural development and two international food programs proposed for elimination, the McGovern-Dole school feeding program and Food for Peace. And Perdue ended his appearance before the appropriators with an unambiguous nod to their authority over his department’s budget, notwithstanding what had been proposed by the White House: “I want you to know I have confidence in the wisdom of the committee.”

After the hearing, he made clear to reporters that he also supported continuing both the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program, both of which were proposed for elimination in the budget.

Perdue promised to reverse his reorganization of RD and support appointment of an undersecretary if senators aren’t satisfied with the way the programs are running a year from now. “Hold us accountable. If I dont make you proud of Rural Development and what we do over the next year Ill be happy to have another undersecretary directed by the farm bill,” he said.

The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, have both opposed eliminating the undersecretary position, and the chairman of the subcommittee, John Hoeven, R-N.D., told Perdue that he remained concerned about the move. Among other concerns Perdue addressed:

GMO labeling. Perdue insisted to Merkley that the department would meet the deadlines set by the GMO disclosure law. A study of consumer behavior is due by this summer and the disclosure standards are supposed to be finalized by July 2018, an ambitious schedule.

Perdue used his response about the timeline to needle Merkley over his opposition to relying on smartphone codes to disclose biotech food ingredients. “It’s my absolute commitment that the study and the rollout of that (disclosure rule) will be on time. And senator, I would recommend you get your grandchildren to help you with that QR app on your phone.”

ARC payments. Perdue told Hoeven that he would work with Congress in the farm bill to address payment disparities between counties in the Agriculture Risk Coverage program. The disparities are “very hard to justify sometimes,” he said.

School nutrition. Perdue plans to convene a meeting of school nutrition officials to get their input on the meal standards implemented under the Obama administration. “I’m one of those people who trusts our school nutrition professionals. The regulatory burden that we’ve placed on them has been very, very difficult from a budget standpoint and from a regulatory accountability standpoint.”