It is 4:50 in the morning. At least twice a day now for weeks I have been checking the web to see whom President-elect Trump will choose to be the least important member of the Cabinet. Yesterday, I had an argument with the opinion editor of a major international newspaper. He said, "Wait, Joel, before writing until we know who will be chosen.'
I do not want to wait. Daily the list of likely individuals to USDA keep expanding. Seemingly from nowhere (although as it turns out from North Dakota) a new name has appeared: Democratic U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Politico has done the best job of reporting on the cabinet selection process. Yesterday, Politico reported that Senator Heitkamp spent over an hour at Trump Tower talking to the President-elect about one of two cabinet positions–Agriculture and Energy.
Fortunately, the transition team led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence has not made an announcement at least until a civilized hour (say 10 AM) today. Perhaps the selection will not take place until next week.
I will be blogging all weekend. Yes, I have other chores–taking a shower, cleaning my oven, writing on disability issues. However, this cabinet selection and its consequences appears as an obsession I am unwilling to check.
When I return I will:
- Surprise you by revealing issues of substance on global and domestic food policy related to the selection of an agriculture secretary.
- Discuss the unexpected shake up in the Trump agriculture transition team.
- Include in the list of likely and unlikely USDA candidates, an obscene comment by one who earns for this posting a not fit for minors rating.
- An offbeat superstition that writing about agriculture policy will keep me alive and well.
Variation of “What’s My Line”
Aaron Sorkin’s “West Wing ” Demonstrates the Secretary of Agriculture is the Least Important Member of the Cabinet
Let me set the scene.
Aaron Sorkin’s fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet is about to deliver the State of the Union Address. For any of you baseball fans, the State of the Union Address is my moral equivalent of the seventh game of the World Series. My fascination here with the selection process during a Presidential transition stems from the experience my friend Walter Shapiro (currently completing coverage of his tenth Presidential campaign for Roll Call) afforded me.
I had been sidelined from working for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Presidential campaign because at 28 I was diagnosed with a cancer of the lymphatic system called Hodgkin’s disease. The relationship between my first bout with cancer and U.S. agriculture policy is forthcoming. The focus here (remember?) is on the insignificance of the Secretary of Agriculture demonstrated in a brilliantly written fictional television series. (Still with me?)
The West Wing episode is on the State of the Union address, as I said a World Series event for speechwriters such as myself. At the State of the Union address the President of the United States addresses a joint session of Congress. All 535 members of Congress are there. Behind the President (visible on camera) are the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and the President Pro Temp of the Senate.
Before the President enters the chamber (more or less as royalty) the Cabinet walks down the aisle with great fanfare. The Secretary of State. The Secretary of Treasury and so on in order of the line of succession. Yet, there always is concern that a hydrogen bomb might drop on the Capitol of the United States. Who will run the country then?
Left behind in the Oval Office is Bartlet’s Secretary of Agriculture.Sorkin’s fictional president is at times a pompous windbag showing off his knowledge of Latin. The Secretary of Agriculture knows that. The scene begins with the head of USDA handing Bartlet a copy of the Constitution in Latin.
The relevance of the scene then follows. The President gives advice to the Secretary of Agriculture on how to run the country in the event of a nuclear holocaust.
Sampling The New York Times Short List
This is the list.
Let us start with Kansas Governor Sam Brownback before discussing serious agriculture policy issues
Thom Hartmann shares a story about a Kansas waitress who told Governor Sam Brownback to “tip the schools” instead of her.
If you liked this clip of The Thom Hartmann Program, please do us a big favor and share it with your friends… and hit that “like” button!
Samuel Dale “Sam” Brownback (born September 12, 1956) is an American politician currently serving as Governor of Kansas. A member of the Republican Party, Brownback was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives during the Republican Revolution of 1994, representing Kansas’s 2nd congressional district for a single term, before running in a 1996 special election for the Senate seat previously held by Bob Dole. He won that election, and two regular elections following, serving until 2011. He ran for president in 2008, but withdrew before the primaries began and endorsed eventual Republican nominee John McCain. He was elected Governor of Kansas in 2010 and took office in January 2011.
Brownback supported the 2007 Iraq War troop surge and has also voiced his support for Israel. He opposes same-sex marriage and has described himself as pro-life. As Governor, Brownback signed into law one of the largest income tax cuts in Kansas’ history. Brownback turned down a $31.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to set up an insurance exchange as part of the federal health care reform law, signed a bill that blocked tax breaks for abortion providers, banned sex-selection abortions, and declared that life begins at fertilization. The income tax cut generated a substantial budget deficit and led some former and current Republican officials to criticize his leadership in the run-up to the 2014 gubernatorial election by endorsing his opponent, Paul Davis. Brownback was reelected in a close race with Davis.
The above interview ends with Governor Brownback responding to a study that found him to be the most unpopular governor in the United States.
Now for something completely different: SUBSTANCE
The big story–bizarrely–is the impact the selection of Secretary of Agriculture will have on the deplorable infant mortality rate in the U.S. The head of USDA (for reasons I can explain) has more funding to reduce infant mortality than any other government department including HHS.
The Secretary of Agriculture is not qualified to reduce informant mortality. The Surgeon General is qualified. Moving the Women Infants and Children program to HHS would have two beneficial effects.
1. Pregnant women with anemia would be treated with medication rather than Total or other iron-fortified cereal.
2. The head of USDA would be free to focus on farming. Currently two-thirds of the USDA budget is spent on food stamps and other income support programs.
Clearly, the most qualified person to be Secretary of Agriculture is Chuck Conner Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives based in Indiana
Briefly, Conner served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Administration of George W. Bush. Conner is second on The New York Times short list. The fact that he is from Indiana is a great help. Vice President-Elect Pence, who runs the Transition Team, has been successful in securing the Medicare position for a friend from Indiana. Several prosperous Indiana farmers appear on the longer lists compiled from the agriculture press.
In 2005, Connor appeared before the Senate Agriculture Committee in nomination hearings for his position as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. This is the statement of the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
STATEMENT OF HON. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, A U.S. SENATOR FROM GEORGIA, CHAIRMAN, COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE, NUTRITION, AND FORESTRY The CHAIRMAN.
Good morning. We are here today regarding the nomination of Chuck Conner to be Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Mr. Conner is no stranger to this committee. From 1980 to 1985, he served as Senator Lugar’s agricultural aide. From 1985 to 1987, he was a professional staff member with the Senate Agriculture Committee.
From 1987 to 1997, he served first as Minority Staff Director, then as Majority Staff Director of this committee. I will have to say, just from a personal perspective, having served in Congress for 10 years, I have known Chuck for basically all of those 10 years, and Senator Lugar, you made an excellent choice when you chose Chuck Conner to join your staff.
He is certainly someone who has extensive knowledge of agriculture and of our programs and has been a very good person to work with over the years. Mr. Conner was President of the Corn Refiners Association from 1997 to 2001. Since 2001, he has been the Special Assistant to the President for Agricultural Trade and Food Assistance. Mr. Conner is accompanied today by his wife, Dru, and their four children, Katie, Ben, Andrew, and Emily. We are pleased to have all of you with us.
Also in attendance today are Chuck’s brother, Mike Conner, and his sister-in-law, Sally Lindsey. Welcome to each of you. Senator Harkin is not here yet, but we will give him an opportunity to make any comment he wishes to when he comes in. I want to let you all know what we are going to do this morning. Because of the Joint Session later this morning, I will ask my colleagues either to submit their opening statements for the record or present them during the first round of questioning.
We have the session at—I believe we need to be on the floor at 10:30, so we are going to try to move this along, and that is our reason for bumping up the time-table. With that, I would like to turn to Senator Lugar for an introduction of Mr. Conner. Senator Lugar.”
Of two of the remaining front runners on The Times’ four man list, Governor Brownback has the disadvantage of being regarded as the worst governor in the United States. Texas Agriculture Secretary Sid Miller who retweeted a tweet using an obscene word to describe Hillary Clinton. Sid Miller is up next on my batting order.
Chuck Conner is Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC). “The majority of America’s 2 million farmers and ranchers belong to one or more farmer cooperatives. NCFC members also include 22 state and regional councils of cooperatives.
“Farmer cooperatives handle, process and market almost every type of agricultural commodity; furnish farm supplies; and provide credit and related financial services, including export financing. Earnings from these activities are returned to their farmer members on a patronage basis, helping improve their income from the marketplace.”
Sonny Perdue first came to my consciousness when the press reported he wore a tie with tractors on it when President-Elect Trump interviewed him at Trump Tower
As with another former governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue has a silly first name and an odd way of dealing with it. Born in 1946 son of a farmer, Sonny’s parents named him George Ervin Perdue III. When he became governor he formally changed the name with which he signed documents to his childhood nickname.
There is some special quality former governors of Georgia have that border on the spiritual. Either they are condemned to a lifetime of obscurity or they become President. Take Jimmy Carter, for example who changed his first name formally so he could sign Presidential Proclamations using his nickname. What did he do as Governor of Georgia that suited him for the Oval Office. Yes, he unveiled a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a sign that Georgia recognized its greatest Twentieth Century leader. What else did he do?
My mother explained it. “People tell me he is worth watching.” Similarly (although there is no chance of Sonny becoming President), he has a watchable quality. Currently, Perdue is watchable.
In 2008 The New York Times regarded Perdue as sufficiently watchable to include him on a list for potential running mates for Vice President. How does one get to become a member of the cabinet? It helps to be a name on the right list.
This is how the Times eased Perdue into a slow rise from obscurity. “Republican governors said that Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Sanford were in the top-tier of potential running mates, but that Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida and Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia were also contenders.” Note: the online version of the Times hotlink Purdue’s name and gave him the opportunity for a quote.
“Mr. Perdue said he had not asked anyone to include his name on a list of potential running mates. But he said, ‘People include my name because we’re the capital of the South, a fast-growing region, and we’ve had wonderful success with a conservative fiscal policy.’”
The paragraph above indicates that when the spotlight was upon him (albeit briefly), he performed well. How well did he perform as Georgia. He was elected with two campaign pledges 1. Administer the state more efficiently. 2. Improve education; specifically raise SAT scores.
“Two primary objectives in Perdue’s administration was on reforming state government and on improving education. Perdue advocated reforms designed to cut waste in government, most notably the sale of surplus vehicles and real estate. Prior to Perdue’s becoming governor, no state agency had even compiled an inventory of what assets the state-owned, much less managed them.
“In education, Perdue promoted the return of most decision-making to the local level. After Perdue took office, Georgia moved out of last place in SAT scores in 2003 and 2004. Although it returned to last place in 2005, Georgia rose to 49th place in 2006 in the combined math and reading mean score, including the writing portion (new that year). The high school class of 2006 recorded the sharpest drop in SAT scores in 31 years.[“
Perdue’s Helpful Family Tie
Last night (December 4), breathless, my Ear on the Ground in Georgia (EOGG) left a voice message at 9. “You know, Perdue’s cousin sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee.”
Perdue’s cousin is Senator David Perdue Republican of Georgia. On Friday, Senator David Perdue (a staunch Trump supporter) met with the President-elect at Trump Tower. They discussed farm legislation. The current farm bill expires in two years. The Administration will have a difficult time renewing the legislation. What is most significant about farm legislation these days is that it is not significant. Until the 1970s, farm legislation determined how much a farmer could or could not plant. No more.
Current legislation deals with technical issues of little concern to consumers. The Farm Bureau and other farm groups are working overtime to prepare because (to repeat) it might not pass. Job One for Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture is to make sure it passes.
No other cabinet agency has the intimate relationship required between the Senate and indeed House Agriculture Committees in whose hearing rooms I have spent ten years of my life. In these Committee rooms it is helpful to have cousins (kissing and otherwise) who are members of the Committee. Sonny Perdue’s selection could very well be determined by blood as well as qualification.
Copyright © 2016 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.