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After the Secretary, USDA’s 4 most important jobs remain vacant

The United States of America is 400 days into President Donald J. Trump’s administration, yet four top USDA jobs remain vacant. The vacant positions aren’t what you call insignificant. After the Secretary of Agriculture, they are likely the most important jobs at USDA, especially when it comes to delivery of USDA programs. They include:

  • The Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. The job description — Runs the U.S. Forest Service with 40,000 employees and responsible for the administration of 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands, which encompass 193 million acres.
  • The Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics. The job description — Department’s chief scientist with oversight for USDA’s $700 million budget for research facilities and its support for more than 100 land-grant universities.
  • The Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. The job description — Distributes food assistance topping $100 billion to 78.4 million people and oversees nutrition and dietary programs. Food programs account for 71 percent of USDA’s budget.
  • The Under Secretary for Food Safety.  The job description — Federal government’s top food safety official responsible for everything from world food standards to oversight of USDA’s $1 billion Food Safety and Inspection Service and leader for the 8,100 inspectors at more than 6,400 processing and slaughter establishments for meat, poultry and egg production in the U.S.

Top jobs going vacant in the federal government is due to a combination of factors. Senate Democrats have been slow in letting the president’s appointments come to floor votes and Trump is not sending them as many nominees as he could. He apparently thinks there is a benefit in not pushing too much through the meat grinder at once.

According to the Partnership for Public Service, there are about 1,200 presidential appointments that require U.S. Senate confirmation. In collaboration with the Washington Post, the Partnership is tracking “636 key positions requiring Senate confirmation” and posting the results online. So far, only 267 appointees are in place

Another 142 formal nominations are waiting for Senate action, and two additional nominations are waiting to be official. Including those four top USDA jobs, the White House has yet to nominate 225 of those “key” positions identified by the Partnership.

Four of the 13 USDA positions that require the Senate’s consent have won confirmation. They are Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue; Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky; Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Gregory Ibach; and Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney.

President Trump nominated four others to serve at USDA that are still waiting for Senate confirmation. They are General Counsel Stephen Alexander Vaden; Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Naomi D. Earp; Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations Kenneth Steven Barbic; and Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services William Northey.

Trump has nominated only one of the top four vacant jobs. He appointed retired Air Force Col. Samuel H. Clovis Jr. as Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics last July, but withdrew the nomination after about six months. Clovis was  attacked by  critics who said was not qualified to be USDA’s “chief scientist.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, has held up a vote on Northey over renewable fuels since last year. Cruz is using Northey to get the attention of Iowa’s GOP senators on the issue.

Trump named Northey and Vaden in 2017, but Earp and Barbic were only recently appointed. Earp is a former Chair and Vice Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George W. Bush. Barbic was senior director of federal government affairs for Western Growers, a produce group.

The fact that other federal departments are in the same boat does not make it any easier for Secretary Perdue at USDA. The department is being asked by Trump to return to budget levels roughly equal to what it had in 2015. Total outlays for 2019 are estimated at $140 billion.

Meanwhile, Senate and House Agricultural Committees are moving aggressively on the 2018 “Farm Bill” without much in the way of restraints under the new two-year budget agreement. USDA is collecting some criticism from conservative Governors and others about when the steep increase in food assistance programs will begin a decline. Those programs, including food stamps, still top a recession level $100 billion despite an improved economy.

Until he gets more Under Secretaries confirmed, Perdue is going to have to continue relying on USDA civil servants. Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget, which begins Oct. 1, is protective toward food safety programs at USDA and the Food and Drug Administration. Leadership is another issue.

USDA is into its fifth year without an Under Secretary for Food Safety. The vacancy is one of the longest running for a major office.    Civil servants are holding down temporary appointments to run both the office of the Under Secretary and as administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.    The law says the President “shall appoint” an Under Secretary for Food Safety subject to Senate confirmation.

There are rumors Trump is near making such an appointment, but those rumors are almost as old as the vacancy.

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