WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2017 - President Trump’s nominees for deputy agriculture secretary and the new position of undersecretary for trade used their Senate confirmation hearing to promise to be forceful advocates within the administration for expanding domestic and international markets.
Steve Censky (left above), the deputy secretary nominee who is now CEO of the American Soybean Association, assured the Senate Agriculture Committee that he would work to keep crop insurance “effective and viable,” champion the Renewable Fuel Standard and provide input into development of President Trump’s budget proposals.
With Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sitting behind the nominees, Censky also spelled out three personal goals that included ensuring that U.S. agriculture becomes more resilient to climate change. The other two goals: Expanding rural broadband availability and expanding market opportunities, both through foreign trade and promoting local and regional food markets.
The nominee for trade undersecretary, Indiana Agriculture Director Ted McKinney (right above), pledged to be a “happy warrior” for U.S. producers on trade. “I anticipate investing significant time in many foreign countries, building trust, opening doors for farmers and processors,” he said.
He said he wanted to be known as “a high trust, high delivery person of our ag portfolio.”
Neither nominee ran into any problems in the hearing and both are likely to have broad bipartisan support. Censky’s three goals were notable in part because they all had strong appeal with Democrats.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, told Censky she was pleased to see the climate goal in his written testimony. He told her that the Agriculture Department should use its research and education programs to help agriculture adapt to climate change. “We can utilize the department’s research programs to understand the trends that are happening, what pests might be emerging, to try to adapt our crops so that they can survive and are better in colder, hotter, wetter, drier climates,” he said.
The committee cannot vote on the nominations until at least next week to give time for senators to get follow-up questions answered by the nominees.
Perdue, who is eager to get a team in place at USDA, made a surprise visit to the hearing to greet the nominees and to listen to their opening statements.
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Stabenow made clear the committee was aware that Perdue needs Censky and McKinney on the job.
“Secretary Perdue and his team have hit the ground running to keep the department working on behalf of the nation’s farmers, ranchers, and other rural stakeholders, but we need to get his team officially on board,” Roberts said.
Stabenow said Perdue “can’t single-handedly run the department which is why we are here to give him support.”
Both Censky and McKinney emphasized their farm backgrounds – Censky’s in southwest Minnesota and McKinney’s in north-central Indiana – in their testimony.
“My roots are absolutely then and still are with the farm in north-central Indiana,” said McKinney, who spent 19 years with Dow AgroSciences and 14 years with Elanco, a subsidiary of Eli Lilly and Co., before being appointed to the state post.
McKinney endorsed Perdue’s plan to move the department’s Codex Alimentarius program (U.S. Codex Office) to USDA's new trade mission area from the Food Safety and Inspection Service. The Codex Alimentarius develops international food standards.
Developing countries rely on those standards, but the Codex process has become increasingly politicized, McKinney said. “We’ll create a plan to somehow restore that on good grounds based on science, not on politics,” he said.
McKinney also said that USDA should continue to push a regionalization concept in managing animal disease outbreaks. USDA urges other countries to limit their import restrictions to the specific U.S. regions where a disease such as avian influenza has been found.
“We’ve got to continue to use science and research to show that we can manage these diseases, and we have,” he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat whose state was hit hard by the 2015 outbreak of avian influenza.
Censky said that he would consider requests from both cotton growers and dairy producers for additional forms of federal assistance but made no commitments. Stabenow had specifically pressed him on a pending proposal to expand crop insurance for dairy.
Censky didn’t specifically address the president’s fiscal 2018 budget request, which called for deep cuts in crop insurance and rural development, but he said he looked forward to having a role in “developing (spending) priorities for future years.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who worked for then-Sen. Jim Abdnor, R-S.D., at the same time as Censky did in the 1980s, recalled observing him work on farm policy. “I always watched with great interest how he handled what was a very difficult time in agriculture, a time of great crisis, with great patience, diplomacy, empathy and knowledge,” said Thune.
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