Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue was confirmed Monday as secretary of the Agriculture Department, bringing into President Trump’s Cabinet an experienced politician with deep support among agricultural interests.
Perdue faced few obstacles to confirmation — the vote Monday was 87 to 11 — after a collegial confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Agriculture Committee, where senators used their testimony time to raise questions about Trump’s budget. Support for Perdue extended far beyond Washington. The former Georgia governor has received thumbs up from hundreds of food and agricultural groups nationwide, including major groups such as the Farm Bureau and the National Restaurant Association.
But Perdue may have to contend with deep cuts to the USDA proposed by the president’s budget, which could disproportionately affect rural residents and farmers nationwide, pitting him between the White House’s priorities and those of rural and agricultural interest groups.
“Our farmers and ranchers have long been waiting for this important role to be filled,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said prior to the vote Monday. “Once Governor Perdue becomes Secretary Perdue, I know he will put the needs of farmers and ranchers -- and rural America -- first.”
During his confirmation hearings, Perdue told senators that he supports many of the programs that could be cut by Trump’s budget, particularly those that focus on agricultural research and rural infrastructure development. The Trump administration has proposed cutting $4.7 billion from the department’s 2018 budget, or 20 percent of its discretionary spending. That proposal — known as the “skinny budget” — has few details about which programs would face reductions. More are expected next month when the White House introduces a more detailed budget plan.
Perdue, whose confirmation stalled for months, did not have a hand in crafting that budget. During his confirmation hearing, he sought to assuage senators’ concerns with large rural constituencies, promising to “do everything in my power” to “manage” Trump’s priorities against the needs of small towns and farmers.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said that Trump’s first months in office have treated rural America as an afterthought.
“For months, rural America has not had a voice in this administration and frankly it shows,” she said before Monday’s vote. “President Trump’s budget proposal makes it clear that rural America is not a priority for this administration.”
Although Perdue has received considerable support in the Senate and from agricultural interest groups, ethics watchdogs have raised concerns about his agro-business holdings. During his tenure as governor, from 2003 to 2011, he declined to place his business interests in a blind trust and regularly came up against the state ethics commission. More than a dozen ethics complaints were filed against him during that time.
Despite those concerns, no members of the committee questioned his ethics record. In consultation with the Office of Government Ethics, Perdue agreed to organize his business holdings — including a Georgia-based grain merchandiser, AGrowStar — into a trust that will not benefit him or his wife.
Perdue is only the second agriculture secretary in history not to pass by unanimous vote; the last such nominee was Secretary Richard Lyng in 1986. Perdue was opposed by several prominent Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Perdue’s confirmation leaves two Cabinet-level nominees awaiting full Senate confirmation: Alexander Acosta for labor secretary and Robert E. Lighthizer for trade representative.