Cabinet-Level Nominees Play the Waiting Game

Politics, paperwork and holdings slowing things down

Four Cabinet-level nominees remain to be confirmed. Clockwise from top left, Dan Coats for director of national intelligence, Alexander Acosta for secretary of Labor, Robert Lighthizer for U.S. trade representative and Sonny Perdue for secretary of Agriculture. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, Alan Diaz/AP, Chambersandpartners.com, Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Farm groups thought they’d have a new Agriculture secretary by now after a long wait to find out who would be the nominee. But they’re growing anxious again over the delayed confirmation of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. 

President Donald Trump has accused Democrats of keeping him from filling his Cabinet, but Perdue’s nomination appears to be on hold because the Senate Agriculture Committee has yet to receive his paperwork.

He is one of four Cabinet-level nominees still unconfirmed. The reasons for their situations vary. 

Perdue seems likely to face little opposition from the Senate Agriculture Committee, where two Republicans — his cousin David Perdue of Georgia, and North Dakota’s John Hoeven, a former gubernatorial colleague — have said they will vote for him. Committee member Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat up for re-election in 2018 in a state Trump won last fall, has also said she will vote for Perdue.

Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said he wants to quickly set a date for a confirmation hearing. However, the Kansas Republican and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said they are still waiting for the nominee’s responses to a committee questionnaire, paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics and his FBI background check. They need the documents to proceed to a hearing, the lawmakers said.

Both Roberts and Stabenow have speculated about the delay.

Stabenow said Sonny Perdue’s holdings in agricultural businesses may be slowing things down as the nominee works out a divestment plan. Roberts has said Perdue appears to be caught in a backlog of FBI background checks.

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and senior Agriculture Committee member, has tweeted his impatience with both the wait and the lack of explanation for it.

Trump announced his intention to nominate Perdue on Jan. 19.

Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to China, felt the need recently to tell several hundred USDA Outlook Forum attendees he expected Perdue’s confirmation to proceed.

“We know he is anxious to get to work to represent agriculture. We know he will do a great job,” Branstad said. He seemed to be assuring people that Perdue remained interested in the job and that the wait for confirmation could soon be over. Branstad is also awaiting Senate confirmation.

House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway of Texas told the same audience “all of us are anxiously waiting” for Perdue’s confirmation.

Coal miners the hold-up?

For U.S. Trade Representative nominee Robert Lighthizer, the holdup appears to be politics.

The trade lawyer’s Office of Government Ethics agreement has been public since Feb. 2 and he’s gotten good reviews from Finance Committee members in his courtesy visits with them. Lighthizer, a former Republican Finance Committee staffer, is no stranger to senior committee members.

But all 12 Finance Committee Democrats, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, want to tie a congressional waiver that Lighthizer needs to serve as trade representative to legislation for coal miners.

The bill would make coal miners’ pension funds solvent and would permanently extend health benefits to retired miners and their spouses. Congress passed a four-month extension of miners’ health benefits last December.

Finance’s top Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, sent Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah a Feb. 28 letter requesting that the waiver and the coal miners’ legislation be packaged together.

Lighthizer needs a congressional waiver because he represented foreign government agencies in 1985 and 1991. Hatch has said he does not think a resolution of the coal miners’ issues should be a precondition for acting on Lighthizer.

Fill in the blanks

Meanwhile, Trump’s pick for Labor secretary, Alex Acosta, has yet to complete his financial disclosure process with the OGE. Acosta, who served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida and in other government positions, was nominated on Feb. 16, one day after Trump’s previous choice for the position, Andy Puzder, withdrew his name from consideration.

The OGE would not confirm if it had received the paperwork for either Perdue or Acosta.

A Senate confirmation hearing for Acosta will not be scheduled until the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee receives a completed questionnaire from Acosta and the finalized paperwork from the OGE, said a spokesman for the panel’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, nominated to be director of national intelligence, had a confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 28. The panel will vote on his nomination on Tuesday in a closed meeting.

Emily Wilkins contributed to this report.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.