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Agri-Pulse reports:

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue vigorously defended his reorganization plan for USDA, saying it would enable the department to move "quickly and nimbly" to address rural development needs, but he and aides later backed off some key descriptions.

Making his first appearance before lawmakers since he took office last month, Perdue enjoyed friendly give and take, easing any concerns among House Agriculture Committee members about his reorganization proposal to create a new undersecretary for trade and eliminate the undersecretary for rural development.

"We're going to have an assistant secretary directly reporting to me that will be the go-to person" on rural issues, Perdue told Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. "If it makes you feel better to call that person undersecretary, then enjoy that."

But after the hearing, a spokesman said the position would be an "assistant to the secretary," not an "assistant secretary," which is a higher level position and would require a change in statute because the current law only allows three USDA slots at the assistant level. After the hearing, Perdue told reporters he may have "misspoken" when he said the job would require Senate confirmation.

Perdue told Bustos that the person in the position would have "direct access" to him "so we can move quickly and nimbly with a vision of improving rural America." At another point in the hearing, Perdue said that eliminating the undersecretary is "in no way ... a diminishment" of the Rural Development (RD) mission area.

Requiring Senate confirmation for the position would have addressed a key concern of former RD officials that the person wouldn't lack the accountability to Congress that a Senate-approved undersecretary has.

"My goal is that it would be the level of confirmation anyway," Perdue told reporters. "Obviously, Congress can determine which positions are Senate confirmed."

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said after the hearing that he had not heard before that Perdue wanted the position confirmed by the Senate.

Perdue told the lawmakers that the department's new undersecretary for trade, a position that the 2014 farm bill required the department to create, would be expected to travel extensively, a "million-mile flyer around the world." "Foreign interests love to see you in person," Perdue said.

A third part of the reorganization plan, moving the Natural Resources Conservation Service into a new Farm Production and Conservation mission area with the Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency, would allow the department's field offices to provide more seamless one-stop service to producers, Perdue said.

"All we're trying to do is bring the family together where we can communicate better to serve that same customers, whether they're signing up for a farm program, ARC or PLC, or EQIP or other things," he said. He was referring to the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, which FSA oversees, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is under NRCS.

Perdue also addressed a number of other concerns. He offered Conaway and other committee members from cotton-producing districts little reason for optimism that he would act administratively to make cottonseed eligible for PLC.

Perdue suggested to Conaway that Congress would have to address the issue in the next farm bill. Perdue told Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, that the failure to get changes to the farm program enacted as part of the fiscal 2017 budget agreement "limited my options severely ... I don't want to give false hope because those options are really limited."

Perdue's predecessor, Tom Vilsack, concluded that he lacked the statutory authority to deem cottonseed an "other oilseed" that would be eligible for PLC. Perdue seemed to hint he would have to follow the same legal advice. "As a non-lawyer I have to rely on my general counsel in that area and will do so," Perdue said.

Perdue expressed opposition to splitting nutrition assistance programs from the farm bill and to restricting the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for sugary fruits and beverages.

"It would be very unwise for Congress to try to promote a separate farm bill without SNAP included," Perdue told Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C. Advocates for nutrition programs and agriculture form a "strong coalition," he said.

However, he suggested reforming SNAP so that benefits are stepped down as a recipient's income rises so that the working poor are not abruptly cut off when their earnings exceed the current limits. "That could have a way of being more encouraging for people looking for work. ... a tiered approach would make more sense," Perdue said.

Perdue also assured lawmakers that rural broadband expansion and inland waterways were priorities for the administration as the White House develops its infrastructure proposal. And he said that his new labor adviser was working on recommendations to make it easier for farmers to use the H-2A visa program for seasonal farm labor.

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