President Joe Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of Agriculture appears headed for committee approval despite Republican concerns about some administration proposals and policies.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., on Thursday told Jewel H. Bronaugh, the Virginia commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, that she has the background and experience to be the second-highest-ranking official at the Agriculture Department.
Bronaugh would come to the job after a career in various areas of agriculture. She is a former Virginia state executive director for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, dean of agriculture at Virginia State University, an associate administrator for extension programs and an extension specialist for 4-H, a network of youth development groups the USDA administers.
She’s drawn high marks for starting a task force that works with Virginia farm and health organizations to identify financial and mental stress.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced Bronaugh to the committee as “a very very talented public servant. You’ll find in Dr. Bronaugh someone who can bring creativity to that position.”
If confirmed, Bronaugh would become the first woman of color to serve as USDA deputy secretary. She is one of two African American members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which represents top officials at state and U.S. territorial departments. Bronaugh also is on the association’s foundation board.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., a former state agriculture commissioner, said she had heard nothing but good things about Bronaugh’s work. “I think you’re an outstanding nominee,” Hyde-Smith said.
The deputy secretary is the chief operating officer responsible for strategic planning for a department that operates 29 agencies and offices and employs about 100,000 people who largely work in locations outside the Beltway. The department’s annual discretionary and mandatory budget is about $150 billion.
At the hearing, Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order on climate generated questions from Sens. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Thune, R-S.D., about a goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030, also known as the 30 by 30 proposal. The executive order provides few details and calls for outreach by several agencies and for a report with ideas on how to achieve the goal.
Grassley and Thune said there are fears among farmers that the federal government will buy up land or issue regulations that limit what owners can do.
Bronaugh said she supports a partnership with agriculture and a respect for private property rights.
“We need to keep our working lands working,” she said, referring to the importance of keeping crop and ranch land in production.
When it comes to whether the 30 by 30 proposal means more federal land ownership, Bronaugh said, “I think there will be a lot more opportunities to make decisions about how we move forward and engage on that. If confirmed, I look forward to hearing more and learning more about how we move forward.”
Boozman raised concerns about private lenders holding USDA-guaranteed Farm Service Agency loans for socially disadvantaged farmers that will be paid off by the Agriculture Department under debt forgiveness provisions in a March COVID-19 relief package. He said he has heard from lenders who say they will be hurt by interest income lost when USDA pays off loans early.
Boozman said it would be unfair if USDA did not take that into consideration and “treat everybody in a fair manner,” and it could lead to some bankers leaving the guaranteed loan program. He asked Bronaugh to make the issue a priority.
Bronaugh acknowledged the importance of lenders, but did not address how the lenders will be dealt with.
“As we work through the challenges in working with our socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, it will be important to ensure we have those resources in the direct and guaranteed loan programs,” she said. “If I have the opportunity to be confirmed, I will work with USDA to ensure that through FSA we have the loans full and available to all of our nation’s farmers and ranchers.”
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., had different concerns about the debt relief provisions.
Warnock asked Bronaugh if she would commit to implementing provisions in the March COVID-19 relief law for debt forgiveness for farmers of color and the $1 billion in expanding the network of organizations and institutions that work with minority farmers. He said they are encouraged by the legislation, but require details on the debt forgiveness since their obligation to make loan payments has not been paused. Because of USDA’s history of discrimination, Warnock said they worry about the department falling short on its promise.
“I acknowledge the distrust that you stated,” Bronaugh responded, adding that it will be important for the Agriculture Department to be accountable for how it implements the provisions. Earlier in her testimony, Bronaugh talked about having spent time with Black farmers and families so stressed by years of farm debt “they gave up hope.”
“If I have the opportunity to be confirmed as deputy secretary, I imagine that I will be closely engaged in my role with ensuring that we follow those accountability measures and make that impact [on farmers of color],” she said.