Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s choice to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said Thursday he will be a tenacious advocate for expanding global trade.
Perdue told the Senate Agriculture Committee during his congenial nomination hearing that he plans to play an intimate role in shaping U.S. trade policy to ensure it benefits the nation’s farmers.
“I plan to be onsite as USDA’s chief salesman around the world to sell these products, to negotiate these deals side by side with USTR [the U.S. trade representative], side by side with [Commerce] Secretary [Wilbur] Ross and our whole team there,” Perdue told the panel.
“I believe that USDA will be intimately involved in the personal on-the-ground, boots-on-the-ground negotiations at tables around this world with ag ministers and foreign dignitaries there selling our products,” he said.
After a presidential campaign in which U.S. trade policy took a beating, Democrats and Republicans on the panel expressed concern about the Trump administration’s trade policy.
Chairman Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsBob Dole, Pat Roberts endorse Kansas AG Derek Schmidt for governor Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Kan.) said the Agriculture Department and the USTR have a history of working together to ensure that agriculture has an "influential seat at the trade table."
“As this administration takes shape I have been concerned that maybe there are too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to trade and we want to make sure they are familiar with the main ingredients,” Roberts said.
“The question is, what is the best way the Department of Agriculture can continue and strengthen its involvement in establishing strong trade policies," he said.
"How can we best work with the U.S. Trade Representative, the lead trade negotiator, along with other officials throughout the Executive to make sure that agriculture is a top and I mean top priority."
The 70-year-old Perdue said he has already met with Ross and USTR designee Robert Lighthizer, whose nomination is tied up in the Senate Finance Committee, to discuss agriculture's role in trade.
Developing those relationships "will be vital" for the future of selling U.S. products abroad, Perdue said.
“Agriculture needs a strong advocate, a tenacious advocate regarding one of the top issues," he said.
In discussions, he said Lighthizer acknowledged that 80 percent of what he’d heard had been about agriculture.
As the chief salesman, Perdue said he has heard loud and clear from lawmakers that U.S. agriculture needs access to new markets abroad.
“I think trade is really the answer and I look forward to being an advisor and counselor in this administration,” Perdue said.
Lawmakers also pressed Perdue to ensure that farmers, specifically dairy producers, have the workers they need.
In responses to questions from Sens. Kirsten Gilibrand (D-N.Y.) and Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Perdue said he would make a push for dairy farmers to get year-round not seasonal immigrant workers.
More broadly, Perdue vowed to improve the H-2A program, which provides temporary immigrant workers to farmers.
"I think virtually every state in the nation is affected by that to some degree," Perdue said.
"I think there’s some things we can do with H-2A and if I’m confirmed I will commit to that and trade are two issues we will begin post-haste to work on."
Perdue also said he would address food safety issues, seek to smooth and expand trade with Cuba and would aim to help to help the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work more “efficiently" and "effectively."
On Cuba, Perdue said “we would love to have Cuba as a customer" and said that he will need the help of Congress to solve financing issues to sell U.S. products there.
"We have the products they need and they would like the product but the problem is the financing part," he said.
Roberts said the panel will move as quickly as possible to vote on the nomination.