(Senate Agriculture Committee)

Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s pick to lead the Agriculture Department, faced pointed questions about the administration’s proposed cuts to rural assistance programs during his otherwise friendly Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.

Perdue, the final Cabinet nominee to receive a confirmation hearing, told members of the Senate Agriculture Committee that he supports several programs that could face cuts under Trump’s budget, including programs that fund agricultural research, develop infrastructure in rural communities and help landowners preserve soil and water quality. He said he also supports making it easier for dairy farmers to employ immigrant workers.

The Trump administration’s budget would cut $4.7 billion from the Agriculture Department’s 2018 budget, reducing its discretionary spending by about 20 percent. However, the budget provided few details about where the savings would come from.

The bulk of the agency’s budget — $164 billion in 2016 — funds mandatory spending programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also known as “food stamps.” Discretionary spending goes toward various rural development and agricultural research programs, as well as assistance for women and children (WIC).

During Perdue’s hearing, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said that Trump’s first two months in office have made it “clear that rural America has been an afterthought.”

(Senate Agriculture Committee)

“Rural America is the economic backbone of our country, and it’s too true that small towns are continuing to struggle to recover from the recession,” she said. “Last week’s budget proposal made it clear that rural America is not a top priority for this administration.”

Perdue said that he had no input into the administration’s budget because he had not yet been confirmed, but expressed “some concern” over the cuts and said he would manage those priorities alongside the cuts, though he didn’t specify how.

“If confirmed, I will work for agriculture producers and consumers to let this administration . . . know what’s important to America,” he said. “These are important programs,” Perdue said in another instance. “I understand that, and I will do everything in my power” to advocate for them.

In his opening remarks, Perdue vowed to make farmers and Americans living in rural America a priority during his tenure. He spoke at length about his rise from his childhood on a dairy farm to his election as the first Republican governor in Georgia since Reconstruction. He stressed that he would pursue a bipartisan approach to agriculture issues.

Perdue is Trump’s final Cabinet-level nominee to receive a hearing. His testimony Thursday before the Senate Agriculture Committee comes nine weeks after he was nominated. It’s unclear why his process took that long.

Responding to questions from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Perdue said he would advocate for laws that would allow the dairy industry to use immigrant labor year-round instead of seasonally.

He also said he would advocate for expanding broadband development in rural areas and committed to maintaining the Rural Utilities Service program, which supports development of water and waste treatment, electric power and other infrastructure in rural areas.

Perdue, in response to a question from Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), said he also recognized the importance of developing food assistance programs for children that serve them during the summertime, when they are unable to receive free or reduced meals at school because of vacation.

He agreed with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) that the USDA has a role to play in helping mitigate the opioid crisis, which has been particularly bad in rural America. Ohio has the largest number of opioid deaths in the country.

“The sad thing about that, as you well know, is much of this is in rural areas of despair. I will absolutely be an advocate. USDA doesn’t have the basic capacity to supplant health care, but it certainly does have an opportunity to help in that regard,” Perdue said, though he didn’t provide specifics.

Perdue was introduced by former senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), who called him “my dear friend, my longtime friend” and spoke about their time together in the state legislature. Scott said he and Perdue were “like brothers.”

“Sonny Perdue is indeed the right person at the right time to do the absolute best job,” said Scott. “Sonny and I had to meet every single day to work together, to set the agenda. . . . You get to understand a person’s temperament when you’re on the battlefield with them.”

The committee did not delve into Perdue’s ethics record during his tenure as governor of Georgia, between 2003 and 2011. During that time, he clashed frequently with the state’s ethics commission and refused to put his businesses in a blind trust. More than a dozen ethics complaints were filed against him, and he was fined twice for campaign finance violations.

In 2005, a longtime associate serving in the state legislature added to legislation an amendment that allowed Perdue to save $100,000 in taxes.

Watchdogs also worried that Perdue’s significant agriculture business holdings — including Georgia-based grain merchandiser AGrowStar — would present a conflict of interest if he were confirmed as agriculture secretary. Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Perdue reached an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics to turn over those holdings to new trusts that would not benefit him or his wife, according to public documents published by OGE.

Perdue is widely expected to be confirmed by the Senate. The Agriculture Committee has yet to schedule a committee vote, but if he passes that hurdle, his nomination will advance to a full Senate vote.

Perdue has received support from major food and agriculture interest groups, including the American Farm Bureau and the National Restaurant Association.