Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s pick to lead the Agriculture Department, could face tense questions during his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday about the administration’s proposed cuts to rural assistance programs and his ethics record.
Perdue will be Trump’s final Cabinet-level nominee to receive a hearing, appearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee nine weeks after he was nominated. It’s unclear why his process took that long.
As governor between 2003 and 2011, Perdue frequently clashed with the Georgia State Ethics Commission and refused to place his business assets into a blind trust. He faced 13 complaints, according to reporting by the New York Times, and several fines for campaign finance violations. He has also been blasted by critics for giving comfortable government jobs to campaign donors and business partners.
In 2005, Georgia state Rep. Larry O’Neal — Perdue’s longtime lawyer — introduced an amendment that made a new tax cut on land sales retroactive to sales from the previous years. Perdue saved $100,000 on taxes thanks to the measure.
Perdue has significant agriculture business holdings that could pose a conflict of interest if he is confirmed at USDA, includes Georgia-based grain merchandiser called AGrowStar. If confirmed as agriculture secretary, Perdue has vowed to turn over his business holdings to new trusts that will not benefit him or his wife, according to public documents sent to the Office of Government Ethics. He said he will resign his positions on several boards, including the National Grain and Feed Association and the Georgia Agribusiness Council.
Ethics watchdogs have balked at Perdue’s record as governor and have called Trump’s decision to appoint the former Georgia governor a contradiction of his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said he hopes those ethics concerns are addressed during the hearing Thursday.
“We want to remind people about the things that happened in Perdue’s past,” Libowitz said. “We don’t make judgments about whether nominees are fit to serve or not, but these are really important issues that need to be discussed.”
The Senate Agriculture Committee also will probably probe Perdue on deep proposed cuts at the department that would reduce its discretionary spending power by $4.7 billion, or about 20 percent. USDA’s annual budget for 2016 was $164 billion, but the bulk of those appropriations go toward mandatory spending programs including the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — or SNAP, also known as “food stamps” — and crop subsidies. The rest of its budget, known as “discretionary spending,” goes toward agricultural research, rural development programs, food safety, and nutritional assistance for women and children (WIC).
The administration’s proposed budget provided little detail about where the cuts would come from, but among those specified are a savings of $500 million by eliminating a program that provides loans and grants for rural water and waste infrastructure and $95 million in savings by eliminating parts of the Rural Business-Cooperative Service.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, strongly opposed the cuts, saying in a statement last week that they would hurt families living in small towns and farmers. “This proposal undermines job creation by eliminating access to credit for small businesses and completely ends rural water infrastructure programs that could leave small towns without clean drinking water or safe sewer systems,” she said.
Perdue, a veterinarian by training, began his political career in local politics, moving from a community council to the state legislature in the early 1990s. After a decade as a state senator, Perdue became governor of Georgia in 2002 and was reelected in 2006.
Perdue is widely expected to be confirmed by the Senate. He has received support from major food and agriculture interest groups, including the American Farm Bureau, the National Corn Growers Association, National Restaurant Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. More than 650 organizations in February sent the Senate Agriculture Committee a joint letter in support of Perdue.