• The Empire Strikes Back? Oil Interests Make Push Against Pro-Biofuels Appointments to the USDA
  • November 23, 2017
  • Midwestern agriculture interests were concerned when former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue was appointed to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gov. Perdue was the first Southerner to be appointed to head the USDA since 1994. The majority of the recent U.S. agriculture secretaries have come from the Midwest, including former Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. The Midwest has been able to rely on the USDA to help support its interests in biofuels, an increasingly important component in corn and other commodity prices, against the powerful interests supporting fossil fuels.

    Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa captured the sentiment with his tweet, “I‘m interested in how MidWest Ag will hv [sic] a seat at the table.”

    The locality of the head of the USDA is typically seen as important as agriculture is in an area in which decisions are made along geographic or crop-specific lines, as opposed to partisan ones. Republicans from the Midwest and South that often are aligned on other issues, such as taxes and social issues, are often placed at odds based on the crops and commodities that are most prevalent in their home states and districts.

    Recently, President Trump has acted to fill positions within the USDA with individuals from Midwestern states. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has been nominated as undersecretary of farm production and conservation. Iowa’s Sam Clovis was nominated for undersecretary for research, education and economics. And Nebraska Agriculture Director Gregory Ibach was selected to serve as undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs. Mr. Ibach and Mr. Northey’s nominations required approval of the Senate Agriculture Committee before heading to the full Senate. Both men were approved by the Agriculture Committee.

    However, while Mr. Ibach was confirmed by the Senate and sworn into office on October 30, 2017, Mr. Northey’s nomination has been stalled in the Senate. Mr. Northey, currently serving his third term as Iowa’s agriculture secretary, received support from over 60 farm and conservation organizations. While Midwestern lawmakers had enjoyed support from the Trump administration in supporting biofuels, senators from states with oil refineries began pushing back on those efforts. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, led the efforts to block Mr. Northey’s nomination. The move by Sen. Cruz appears to be a response to Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who temporarily blocked the nomination of Bill Wehrum to a position at the U.S. EPA. Sen. Ernst allowed Mr. Wehrum’s nomination to advance only after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wrote a letter supporting various policies favorable to renewable fuels.

    Gov. Perdue has expressed frustration with the situation stating that, “We need these people to go to work.” The Governor added, “We’ve always in the United States had a great transition of government. And this is a poor example of how to transition when we can’t get people into office in order to go to work.”

    Regardless of the expected political infighting and holdup of appointments it’s of great interest for those concerned about Midwestern agricultural and environmental issues to see how the USDA will be led, and what priorities will be set, now that it’s headed by someone who doesn’t hail from the Midwest. We plan to keep an eye on whether these concerns materialize into something noticeable and tangible.