Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, stands out among his fellow Executive Branch appointees in that he bring relevant experience to the post. He had previously served two terms as governor of Georgia and owns agriculture related businesses. In his time as the top politician of the Peach state, he racked up numerous ethics violations, which perhaps caught the eye of Donald Trump. As Ag Sec, Perdue has engaged in self-dealing and otherwise promoted an agenda running counter to the interests of the average American.
Government ethics reform was ostensibly a major component of Perdue’s time in the Georgia governor’s mansion. He signed into law legislation that prevented himself and any other state employees from accepting gifts over $25. However in two terms over eight years he received over $25K in gifts. In his time in office 13 complaints were filed against Perdue with the Georgia State Ethics Commission. Twice the commission ruled against the governor, resulting in fines. Perdue was additionally accused of passing tax reform through the Republican-led state legislature to avoid $100K in capital gains tax from a real estate sale, then turning around and using the money to buy a parcel of land in Florida from an individual he’s appointed to the state’s economic advisory board.
At his Senate confirmation hearing, Perdue stressed his commitment to ‘’customer service.’’ Those customers appear to be disproportionately large, multinational corporations. Trump’s trade war with China has impacted America’s farmers as much as any of his policies. In attaching tariffs to commodities like soybeans and pork belly, Trump shut out millions of farmers from the world’s largest consumer marketplace. The administration’s solution was an impetuous $16 billion in relief, for which Congressional approval was not received. Its recipients were overwhelmingly giant farm conglomerates. JBS, a Brazilian company and largest meat producer in the world, received $82 million in pork contracts funded directly by the bailout money. Roughly 10% of eligible farmers received nearly 70% of all available relief. The top 1% of farmers received an average of $183K in bailouts, while the bottom 80% received an average of $5K. The program was additionally controversial as it shielded Trump from significant political fallout from his haphazard tariff tit-for-tat. US taxpayers subsidized the wealthiest farmers on the planet while simultaneously attempting to kick millions off food stamps. That course of action speaks volumes about the ‘’customers’’ Perdue is intent on serving.
As head of the USDA, Perdue is responsible for federal laws which concern farming, forestry, rural economic development and food. Scientific consensus dictates that man-made climate change poses short and long-term threats to each of these areas. Perdue is among the many skeptics in the Trump administration electing to bury their hands in the sand as precious time to address the issue slips away. While acknowledging climate change as fact, he has publicly expressed doubts about its severity and prioritized removing ‘’onerous regulations’’ on farmers, rather than address the impeding damage of an increasingly hotter planet. For decades, the USDA has publicly promoted its findings of government-funded studies to better educate farmers and consumers alike. Never an outfit to respect precedent, the Trump administration has refused to publish dozens of studies designed to investigate the far-reaching effects of climate change. The administration is attempting to suppress evidence contrary to their staunch denial of climate science. Among the studies swept under the rug include findings that rice may lose nutrients in a carbon-rich atmosphere (which would be devastating to the over half a billion people who subside primarily on the grain) and that farmers may have poorer quality grass on which to raise cattle. All told, at least 45 USDA studies related to the effects of climate change have received no publicity. Perdue holds a degree in veterinary medicine and has stated good science should guide policy. His actions have not reflected that stance, as he has habitually towed the Trump line on climate science.
No department in Trump’s Executive Branch would be complete without a political appointee undermining its efficacy and filling the ranks with undue hires. 42 resumes of political appointees were reviewed by Politico. 22 had worked on the Trump campaign with no relevant experience in their field. A former pesticide lobbyist was placed in charge of a deregulation team. Under Perdue, chemical companies have enjoyed a troubling ease of access to officials, even by the standards of the Trump administration. Perdue has also overseen a mass exodus of career government scientists by moving the USDA’s research office from Washington to Kansas City. Affected employees were given 33 days to decide whether to accept relocation or lose their job. Most quit, taking with them incalculable experience on important research at a crucial time.
The Trump administration has been plagued by scandal and ethics concerns from its outset. Sonny Perdue has not made many splashy headlines in that regard. Nonetheless he has taken deliberate action to undercut his department’s function and public trust in it. He has not been so brazen in his malfeasance as to attract attention and enmity. His lower profile has likely allowed him to operate unimpeded and do far-reaching damage.