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Trump Is Slow to Fill Key Agency Positions: Could This Be A Good Thing For The Environment?

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Joel B. Stronberg

Walk into any ball park in the nation and you’ll hear the hawkers refrain: "Programs, get your programs! You can’t tell the players without a program." What about the Donald Trump administration?

Here in Capital City, as of May 22, the players’ program is written mostly in blank verse. According to the Washington Post’s tote board: Of the 557 key Trump administration positions requiring Senate confirmation, 33 have been filled, while only 56 have been nominated.

This progress compares to the same date in prior administrations rather poorly.

The Donald’s accusations, notwithstanding, the sparsity of key agency personnel cannot be blamed on Senate Democrats. The president himself is to blame for languorous pace.

The State Department leads the pack, with a total of 114 vacancies and only five approved appointments. Confirmed nominees include: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Nikki Haley as representative to the United Nations; Tulinabo Mushingi as Ambassador to the Republic of Senegal/Guinea-Bissau; Todd Phillip Haskell as Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel.

Ten others have been nominated or announced but have not been formally submitted to the Senate. These include Tillerson’s deputy secretary and the deputy secretary for management, and the ambassadorships to China, Russia, the U.K. and Japan.

The administration has not yet announced nominations for the ambassador posts in Korea, Saudi Arabia, Australia or most other nations. Filling these positions, for the most part, are career State Department personnel. Although not untended, the positions are being filled by caretakers hamstrung by a lack of direction from the White House and the uncertain status accorded all temps.

State is joined in this predicament by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency -- two agencies facing potentially major policy and program course corrections.

Twenty-two positions at DOE require Senate confirmation. These include secretary (confirmed), general counsel and all the under and assistant secretarial offices. Today, 21 positions are vacant; of those, only the deputy secretary has been nominated.

Down the street from Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency has an equal number of confirmed appointees and nominees — one! Vacancies include the assistant administrators for water, air and radiation, chemical safety and pollution prevention, and enforcement and compliance.

How the president and his senior advisors intend to deal with the problem of temporary workers in key policy and management positions is not clear.

Looking around for some sign of what’s to come, one inevitably lands on the goings-on at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sonny Perdue, the former two-term governor of Georgia, was sworn in just weeks ago as Secretary of Agriculture. Perdue wasted no time making his influence felt.

As reported in the Omaha World-Herald: "On his second day in office . . . Perdue helped persuade Trump not to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement  with Mexico and Canada, arguing that doing so would hurt U.S.  farmers.Trump has said he will work to renegotiate the pact instead."

Swaying presidential minds isn’t all the secretary has been up to in his brief month in office. It appears that Perdue and the White House are zeroing in on other key players on the Ag team.

The four most talked-about candidates have several things in common. All are Midwesterners and agree with Perdue’s desire to focus on international trade and marketing — even to the exclusion of rural development. Three have leadership experience, either at USDA during previous Republican administrations or in state government, while the fourth headed up Trump’s USDA transition team.

Three are closely associated with big agribusinesses, particularly major chemical and biotech giants, and the fourth is a self-avowed climate denier. To put names to characteristics.

Steve Censky appears slated for the No. 2 slot as Perdue’s Deputy Secretary. He has been CEO of the American Soybean Association (ASB) for the past 21 years. Prior to his gig as CEO, he served at USDA under both the Reagan and G.W.H Bush administrations.

The Soybean Association is a producers group listing among its priorities: trade expansion, including with NAFTA and Asia-Pacific nations; tax reform, including repeal of estate taxes and full and immediate expensing of capital investments.

The Association wants to abolish the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule (WOTUS) and encourages: "developing a definition of sustainable agriculture that encompasses profitable, intensive production… encourages consumer acceptance of biotechnology enhanced products… supports biotechnology, commercial fertilizer, and commercial crop protection products and believes…any definition of “sustainable agriculture” includes the use of these products."

Bill Northey is Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture and appears destined to become the first to fill the newly created position of USDA Under Secretary for farm production and conservation. As Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones put it, Northey is: "Tightly aligned with the Big Ag interests that dominate Iowa, Northey's campaign donor list (source) reads like an agribiz directory… Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Syngenta ... the Iowa Cattleman's Association and the China-owned pork giant Smithfield ... and … Archer Daniels Midland."

Ted McKinney was appointed by then Gov. Mike Pence as Indiana’s state agriculture director in 2013. According to Washington odds-makers and the agricultural grapevine, McKinney will be joining the now Vice President Pence in D.C. as the USDA’s Under Secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs.

McKinney’s background is remarkably similar to Kerensky. It includes having been a C-suite executive with Elanco Animal Health -- a division of Eli Lilly — and years of service on the government affairs team for seed/pesticide giant Dow AgroSciences.

It will undoubtedly seem like old times at USDA, as McKinney is the co-founder and one-time executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information.

I thought it curious the Council’s website is not Councilsomething.org or even .com. Its LinkedIn page has it as http://gmoanswers.com. (GMO stands for genetically modified organisms.)

According to its website, the organization’s funding comes courtesy of BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta. The organization "stand[s] 100 percent behind the health and safety of the GM crops on the market today, but..acknowledge[s] …we haven’t done the best job communicating about them – what they are, how they are made, what the safety data says."

The likely fourth horseman of the potential apocalypse at USDA is Sam Clovis. Dr. Clovis earned a B.S. degree in political science from the Air Force Academy and his DPA* from Iowa’s Morningside College, where he taught business management and public policy classes.

His LinkedIn profile lists him as Chair and Professor at Morningside. Clovis is an advisor to President Trump and since the inauguration part of the temp team running USDA waiting for Perdue to arrive.

Clovis’ political creds include having been an advisor to Governor Perry in his unsuccessful bid to secure the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. After leaving Perry, he signed on to the Trump team and was seen frequently as a media spokesman for the campaign.

The good doctor made an unsuccessful bid to secure the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2014 — ultimately losing out to now Sen. Joni Ernst. His early Iowa reputation was built on his talk-radio show "Impact with Sam Clovis."

Clovis’ whispered nomination as the USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics is proving both confusing and troubling for the science community and environmental and clean energy advocates.

Confusing because this particular position is identified as USDA’s chief scientist—not political scientist, physical scientist. "The previous undersecretary, Catherine Woteki, has a PhD.D. in human nutrition and was previously the dean of the school of agriculture at Iowa State University. The current Acting Under Secretary, Ann Bartuska, has a Ph.D. in ecology and has worked in many scientific positions, including high-level positions at the U.S. Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy," wrote Steven Salzberg of Forbes.

Appointees going back at least through the Bill Clinton administration have all had recognizable scientific qualifications and experience. "This position is the chief scientist of the Department of Agriculture…a person who evaluates the scientific body of evidence and moves appropriately from there," Woteki told ProPublica.

Clovis’ climate record is troubling because he is an avowed skeptic. While chasing the senatorial nomination in 2014, he responded to a question about climate change and its anthropogenic causes thusly:

"I am extremely skeptical. I have looked at the science and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed…a lot of the science is junk not proven; I don’t think there’s any substantive information available to me… I’m not sure what climate change means." (emphasis mine)

No matter his politics, I respect any man who knows when he’s being boofed.  I’m just not sure that such knowledge outweighs a total lack of any scientific training or background for USDA’s chief scientist. There is little in his background to suggest he understands the relationship of biomass to carbon sequestration or that he even cares.

Trump may also wish to think more carefully about Clovis’ nomination based on his Russian connections. There is a significant amount of information suggesting the doctor has had deep ties with executives at Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas giant.

Julia Ioffer, a contributing writer for Politico, reported last September of Clovis having been responsible for introducing Carter Paige into the Trumpian circle of advisors. Paige is in the group with Manafort, Flynn and others being investigated as part of the possible Russia conspiracy.

It is inconceivable that Clovis would not be questioned on the nature of his relationship with both Gazprom and Paige during his Senate confirmation hearings. I am not suggesting that Clovis has done anything improper. The reality is simply that President Trump might be wise to avoid adding any fuel to a fire already appearing to burn out of control. In return, he would likely rest easier at night and stand a chance of having his nominees confirmed more rapidly.

The USDA experience may well portend how Trump will fill the remaining 500 or so key agency positions requiring Senate confirmation. The four likely nominees discussed above confirm an emphasis of business interests over environment, trade and science.

They also seem to suggest the White House’s default candidate pool will be relatively well-known conservatives with some prior and proven connection to senior administration staff, e.g. Pence, Perry and even Trump, as well as to large corporate sources of campaign contributions.

Why The Donald has been so slow to fill these positions is something of a mystery. The importance to Trump’s agenda and that of many Congressional Republicans is not.

For Trump and company to have a chance of seeing core parts of their agenda accomplished before the 2018 mid-term elections, they will need to have their managers installed throughout the agencies. Temps of career civil servants and interim outside appointments cannot do what the administration has promised in most cases.

Temporary appointees do not have the legal standing necessary to effectuate the lauded magnitude of change. I would venture that most career government professionals lack the desire to decimate federal programs they have spent careers refining—even should they have the authority. In any event, few would presume to speak for a President who no one seems to understand.

Administrative incompetence and an unwillingness to operate within established practices may not be impeachable offenses. I can guarantee it is likely to turn out to be political suicide.

For climate defenders and supporters of a more moderate national agenda, that may not be such a bad outcome.  In any event, The Donald and his Trumpeters can’t say they haven’t been warned.

*Note Clovis’ LinkedIn profile shows him having attended the University of Alabama between 1998 and 2006 at the same time he was earning is DPA at Morningside College. At least one account—the Washington Post—references his attendance at Alabama but also states the doctoral program was shut down shortly after 2006.

Table source: https://ourpublicservice.org/issues/presidential-transition/political-appointee-tracker.php

Featured Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq.,of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion . He works extensively for public and private sector clients at and recently taken on the duties of managing partner for LAC Solar Light, Inc. a B-type corporation working in the Americas. Joel can be contacted at thejbsgroup78@gmail.com.

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