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News from Ground Control: Planet Trump (March 24)

Friday, March 24, 2017

On Thursday Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s pick to head the Department of Agriculture, dogged by ethics questions, faced his confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Perdue received light questioning before the committee, but a number of members including Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the panel’s highest-ranking Democrat, used the opportunity to plug the importance of a USDA program that helps provide grants and loans to rural communities to clean up drinking water – a program for which President Trump eliminated funding in his recent budget proposal.

Stabenow also reminded Perdue of the USDA’s important duty to advocate on behalf of all farmers, including organic farmers as well as fruit and vegetable growers. And Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) brought up the importance of regional conservation programs and why conservation practices are so important for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) is hoping the full Senate will vote on Perdue’s confirmation before the Easter recess. Meanwhile, EWG is still waiting for answers to many of the questions we posed earlier this week about Perdue’s policy positions and ethical quandaries.

Also of note this week was new momentum against the so-called Regulatory Accountability Act, or RAA – aka the Filthy Food Act – which passed the House in January.  There isn’t a Senate version yet,  but it could happen soon. If passed in its current form, the bill would create a gauntlet of obstacles for federal agencies to contend with and could have major impacts on the government’s ability to keep our food safe and our air and water clean.

EWG and several other leading public interest groups sent a letter to members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committees in opposition to this deeply troubling legislation.

Here are several of this past week’s deep dives on those developments.

Forbes, Nancy Fink Huehnergarth (March 21):  Under-the-Radar Legislation Threatens to Undermine Federal Protection of Health and Environment

Environmental Working Group Vice President Scott Faber described the House version of the RAA as "the fever dream of the Chamber of Commerce." It would handcuff and stall regulators in a multitude of ways, by:

  1. Requesting agencies to review every conceivable alternative.
  2. Creating two layers of judicial review.
  3. Changing the role that judges play so that they are second guessing agency experts.
  4. Subjecting all major rules to House and Senate approval.

"This is the legislative embodiment of Steve Bannon’s pledge to deconstruct the administrative state," Faber said, "and will create a regulatory obstacle source that no significant rule will ever clear."

The Huffington Post, Arthur Delaney (March 21): Trump Said He’d Fix Flint. Hobbling the EPA is an Odd Way to do That.

Trump’s budget proposal is “all but guaranteeing more American children will be drinking water contaminated with lead and other dangerous pollutants,” Ken Cook, co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement., Stephen Koff (March 20): EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Pledged Support for Great Lakes. President Trump Appears to Have Undercut Him

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said he voted to confirm Pruitt partly on assurances that the Great Lakes initiative was safe. It turned out that Pruitt lacked authority to make that happen. 

"He's writing checks he can't cash," Scott Faber, vice president for public affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said of Pruitt in a telephone interview. 

Civil Eats, Elizabeth Grossman (March 23): Trump’s Budget Would Set Food System Progress Back Generations

“Regardless of who you voted for, no one voted for dirtier water, dirtier air, or less-safe food, and that’s exactly what we’ll be getting with the president’s budget,” said Colin O’Neil, Environmental Working Group’s director of agriculture policy.

New Castle News, Kery Murakami (March 23): Perdue’s Past Focus of Critics

“President Trump promised to drain the swamp,” said Colin O’Neil, agricultural policy director for the Environmental Working Group. “He’s nominating someone whose political career epitomizes the very swamp he pledged to drain.”

The group cited a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Perdue while governor signed a bill that excused him of $100,000 in property taxes. The group said Perdue also received $278,000 in USDA federal farm subsidies between 1996 and 2004.

“Was Perdue like thousands of other city slickers whose land ownership made them eligible to receive subsidies that should be flowing to family farmers?” it asked in a blog post.

USA Today, Bartholomew Sullivan ( March 22):  Ag Sec Nominee Finally Faces Senate

Others are critical of Perdue for receiving $278,000 in USDA federal farm subsidies from 1996 to 2004. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based think tank that keeps track of agricultural subsidy payments and advocates against them, has raised questions about his judgment. It called attention to a state tax bill he signed into law in 2005 that provided him with a $100,000 tax break involving acreage he purchased in Florida.

EWG agriculture policy director Colin O’Neill said that, although Trump has promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, Perdue “is mired in ethical lapses, self-dealing and back-room deals that raise troubling questions about his fitness to run the department.”

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