Last week was a big one for Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The U.S. Senate heard his testimony and groups visiting Washington D.C., like the state agriculture directors, listened to his every word he had for them.
In case you have not noticed, the Secretary of Agriculture over time has become a pretty popular fellow in government circles. My guess is that if you conducted a survey of the 435 people elected to Congress from both parties and asked if they could have one cabinet member tour their district with them, the Secretary of Agriculture would get the request for more than 300.
The reason is that the Secretary of State or Defense or Attorney General is just going to get you a little hometown press. With USDA’s annual outlays in the $140 billion range, well that’s real money that has to be spent in somebody’s district.
Everybody knows there’s USDA money for rural housing, broadband, and drug addiction, but did you know USDA has also funded jail cells and college classrooms. And those are just a few examples for illustrative purposes.
Truth is that Secretary Perdue perfectly fits the profile for Secretary of Agriculture that has grown up around the office for the past 30 years so. He is the former popular Governor of a state where agriculture is a top industry. He fits the bill as “Mayor of Rural America.”
Perdue fits the profile. So did Tom Vilsack, who moved from Governor of Iowa to be Secretary of Agriculture. And so did most of the others going back 30 years or so.
From Henry Wallace, who favored destroying crops and animals to raise prices, to Earl Butz, who famously warned farmers to “get big or get out,” past Secretaries of Agriculture were known for their passionate opinions about farming.
Those days are gone as Mayors of Rural America are mainly about dispersing federal largess. Secretary Perdue’s motto is “Do Right and Feed Everyone.”
Perdue testimony to the Senate Committee on Agriculture on Feb. 28 was about the U.S. Economy, implementing the 2018 Farm Bill, and bringing about Rural Prosperity. He’s says USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused department in the federal government.
Secretary Vilsack had the good fortune to be Secretary when farm incomes, commodity prices, and land values all hit new peaks after the Great Recession. Rural America, however, has never recovered the jobs it had before the economy stumbled, and some experts say it never will. There’s also plenty of evidence that farmers are making less off food than ever.
That the Secretary of Agriculture has turned into some sort of Mayor or Czar for Rural America with a specific profile shouldn’t surprise us. It’s the standard federal government approach to problems. Sort of like when the federal government made American public schools competitive with others in the world with the U.S. Department of ‘Education programs. Oh, that did not work out? Sorry I brought it up
Food safety also becomes less at USDA every year that goes by. The Food Safety and Inspection Service budget is almost stagnant from year-to-year as those USDA “outlays” continue to grow and grow.
There has not been an Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety now in more than five years. As a wise man said not so long ago, it USDA makes it a priority if terms like “international trade” and “marketing” are in the title.
Rarely if ever does a Secretary of Agriculture get pinned down about where food safety is going at USDA. Why it cannot seem to identify drug-resistance Salmonella serotypes and rule them to be adulterants like the seven E. coli strains. To be wholly accurate, those ag committee Senators probably have less interest in USDA food safety than does the Secretary.
In addition to his welcome in 300+ congressional districts, there are roughly 700 rural and agricultural organizations who would gladly invite the Secretary of Agriculture speak at their next conference, convention or capital city visit. They might frame an educated question, but nothing ever that would embarrass the Secretary at a hearing or public forum.
The Secretary really does not have to care about food safety. Like Men in Black II, all he has to do is open the locker at the bus station and there is a galaxy of characters saying “All hail Jay!” Or in this case: “All hail Sonny!”
In the five years since Dr. Elisabeth Hagen stepped down as Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety, USDA has been able to ignore problems that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) cannot address on their own.
For the last five years, it’s been like USDA has had food safety locked up in a bus depot locker.
“All hail Jay!”
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