It has taken more than three months into U.S. President Donald Trump’s term for the last of his most senior advisers – yet arguably the most important for the produce and floral industries – to be confirmed and get working. These include the Secretaries of Agriculture and Labor, as well as the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
This is the longest any cabinet in history has taken to gain approval by the United States Senate, a requirement of cabinet-level appointments. The blame for these delays is shared both by the White
House, which was slow to name some nominees and slow to provide complete ethics background information, as well as the Senate, which has been embroiled in partisan battles over certain nominees, leading to delays. Even after these high-level nominees are confirmed, hundreds of other positions remain to be approved or even selected, which will continue to slow the pace of actions at U.S. government agencies.
Secretary of Agriculture
Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, a veterinarian by training and successful agribusiness owner, was formally announced on Jan. 19 and received final Senate approval on April 24. Perdue’s slow confirmation was due to a protracted delay in submission of his ethics paperwork demonstrating he had adequately separated himself from his businesses to avoid conflicts of interest in his role as secretary. The delay in Perdue’s arrival at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has meant he has not been able to participate in development of the administration’s trade policy agenda or Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget being submitted to Congress in mid-May. Other appointments to high-level positions at USDA have been delayed until Perdue’s final approval.
Coinciding with Perdue’s swearing-in on April 25, President Trump issued an executive order aimed at reducing regulatory burdens on farmers over 180 days, with emphasis on rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Interior, Labor, and the Food and Drug Administration.
U.S. Trade Representative
Robert Lighthizer's confirmation as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) occurred May 11. His confirmation was delayed due to Senate Democrat’s linkage of a vote to approve him on extension of health benefits for miners — a matter unrelated to his role as USTR. U.S. law also requires Congress to grant special waivers to individuals in high-level positions whom have represented foreign governments. Lighthizer, a former Deputy USTR and trade attorney by training, had represented foreign governments in his professional career after last leaving government service. Senate Republicans and Democrats, along with the White House, argued whether Lighthizer required a special waiver given his past legal representation of foreign governments. The waiver, however, was included as part of the fiscal year 2017 omnibus appropriations package signed into law on May 5, 2017; therefore, Lighthizer’s nomination was cleared for Senate’s consideration.
Lighthizer will play a key role in one of modern history’s most complex presidential trade policy teams, to which his voice and expertise will be added to those of Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Director of the White House National Trade Council Peter Navarro. President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement in lieu of a stated strategy of pursuing bilateral agreements with the TPP countries. Trump has initiated the process to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as other trade agreements.
Given the global flow of produce and floral products, trade agreements and the U.S. Trade Representative play an important role in the daily lives of PMA’s members. Lighthizer — and the rest of the Trump trade team — have been circumspect while Lighthizer awaited confirmation. Hopefully additional details of the administration’s trade objectives will be forthcoming in the near term.
Secretary of Labor
After the withdrawal of Andrew Puzder to be President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, his replacement, Alexander Acosta, was appointed April 27. Acosta served as the dean of the College of Law at Florida International University. President George W. Bush appointed Acosta to the National Labor Relations Board, and he later served as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Florida. He is the first Hispanic member of Trump’s cabinet. The Department of Labor has primary responsibility for issuing temporary work permits for foreign workers — including agricultural workers — an important issue for PMA’s members.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and practicing physician at New York University, where he is a clinical assistant professor. Dr. Gottlieb spent several years at FDA serving as the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and later as deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs. His current service on several corporate boards has drawn criticism from consumer watchdog organizations. Gottlieb takes over when critical issues for implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) face the agency, including the applicability of certain rules to entities in the produce industry and the agency’s earlier-stated intent to revisit FSMA water rules. Given Gottlieb’s stronger experience in the pharmaceutical industry, ensuring equally strong candidates for the Deputy Commissioner for Foods and other positions will be a priority for PMA. Gottlieb was confirmed May 11.