Senate Democrats may fight confirmation of Sam Clovis for senior USDA job

Senator Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has “strong concerns that Sam Clovis is not qualified” to serve as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for research, extension, and economics, Chuck Abbott reported for Successful Farming on July 21.

The White House confirmed last week that President Donald Trump will nominate Clovis for the senior post, an appointment that has been in the works for months.

As Mike Lavender of the Union of Concerned Scientists explained here, that undersecretary “also fills the role of USDA’s Chief Scientist,” and federal law requires the president to appoint someone “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” Clovis, who has been handling political work at the USDA since January, has no scientific background or expertise in a field related to agriculture. I enclose below the full statement from the Union of Concerned Scientists on the Clovis nomination.

Confirmations for USDA jobs are usually routine. (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, who’s in line for another position, will likely sail through the process.) But Stabenow said last week of Clovis, “This nominee seems to lack the necessary agricultural science and research qualifications that are required by the Farm Bill. I also have many questions about his troubling views on climate change and providing public investment in crop insurance and education.” Senate Democrats don’t have the votes to block a Trump appointee without persuading at least three Republicans to oppose the candidate. However, a few nominations have been withdrawn amid controversy over the person’s qualifications.

Speaking of Clovis, his name has come up in some news on the investigation of Trump campaign ties with Russian officials. By several accounts, he brought Carter Page on board as a Trump foreign policy adviser. Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman reported for the Washington Post in May that Clovis used “what campaign aides now acknowledge was their go-to vetting process — a quick Google search — to check out the newcomer.”

But what the Google search had not shown was that Page had been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013, when Russian officials allegedly tried to use him to get information about the energy business.

By the summer of 2016, Page, who had been recently named as a Trump adviser, was under surveillance by FBI agents who suspected that he may have been acting as an agent of the Kremlin.

As part of its broader investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the FBI continues to examine how Page joined the campaign and what conversations he may have had with Russian officials about the effort to interfere with the election [….].

What could go wrong, putting someone with that kind of commitment to research in charge of science at the USDA?

At this writing, I have seen no statement from Senators Chuck Grassley or Joni Ernst on the Clovis nomination, but I expect they will vouch for him with their GOP colleagues. They have not yet opposed any Trump appointees, and I doubt they would find fault with any loyal Iowa Republican.

July 20 news release from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

President Trump Illegally Nominates Non-Scientist to Lead Science at the USDA

Statement by Ricardo Salvador, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)
WASHINGTON (July 20, 2017)—Today President Trump nominated Sam Clovis, a conservative talk radio host and former Trump campaign adviser, for the role of chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With no background in science, Clovis—who is also a vocal climate denier—is an unacceptable and illegal choice for this important role that affects farmers, rural communities, and the health and nutrition of all Americans.

The United States Code requires that the USDA’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics—who also serves as the agency’s chief scientist—be chosen from among “distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” Clovis has no such training or experience, and is therefore legally and scientifically unqualified to direct nearly $3 billion a year in research grants and ensure that research supported by and scientific advice provided to the department is “held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.”

Below is a statement from Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS.

“This is another example of the Trump administration sidelining science and rejecting evidence-based decision-making, once again working against the interests of American farmers, rural communities and consumers.

“The USDA plays a vital role in keeping the nation’s food safe and its water clean; improving nutrition for all of our children; and giving farmers the tools they need to improve farm productivity and profitability and manage long-term challenges including climate variability, water availability, and soil health. These complex and urgent issues all demand science-based solutions and USDA leadership with deep appreciation and understanding of the scientific process. Sam Clovis simply doesn’t have the tools required for the job.

“If President Trump wants to keep Americans safe and healthy, ensure prosperity for farmers and rural communities, and follow the law, this nomination is the wrong choice.”

UPDATE: KMA Radio reported on July 30 that Grassley supports the Clovis nomination.

“I have known him for many years, and have confidence in him to be a good public servant, and I strongly support his nomination,” Grassley said. “Under Secretaries are tasked with implementing the vision of the Secretary and President. Dr. Clovis, with his extensive military and educational background, and knowledge of agriculture policy, is well-suited for the job.”

Not surprising but nonetheless disappointing: KMA did not mention that Clovis lacks credentials for this position, as specified under federal law.

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