What to watch for during Sonny Perdue's Senate confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON -- Former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Thursday confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee may be best understood by contrasting it with the experience of another Georgia Republican tapped to serve in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Price’s two turns before the Senate this winter were sharply partisan and often ugly affairs. They stretched for hours as Democrats fought the Roswell congressman on the minutiae of his stock trades and past proposals on sensitive subjects such as birth control and safety net programs.

Perdue’s confirmation hearing to be secretary of agriculture, meanwhile, is expected to be nothing short of a love fest. The Republican has received glowing reviews from senators on both sides of the aisle. He boasts a blood relative on the committee, U.S. Sen. David Perdue. And since agriculture tends to be more of a regional issue rather than a partisan one, nothing he’ll discuss is expected to be nearly as sensitive as health care.


While Democrats were determined to stretch out Price’s confirmation process for as long as possible, lawmakers from farm and rural states are desperate to get an agriculture chief in place who can stick up for them at White House.

Boiling it all down, Perdue, 70, is expected to skate through the hearing and on to Senate confirmation in the weeks ahead. It is his would-be boss who will likely be more of a divisive topic.

Here's what to watch for as Perdue kicks off his testimony:

Trump’s Shadow

The biggest factor at Perdue’s hearing will likely be a man who isn’t there. While many in the agriculture community embraced Trump during the presidential race, there was considerable anxiety after it took him so long to name an ag nominee, as well as his recent proposal to slash the Department of Agriculture’s budget by more than 20 percent. Agriculture Committee members will likely be looking for reassurance that Perdue will personally back up the industry at the White House.

Other topics of conversation will likely be trade and immigration. The U.S. agriculture relies heavily on exports and immigrant labor, which run counter to some of Trump’s more protectionist policy proposals. The president’s recent fighting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto haven’t exactly assuaged the industry’s fears. Perdue as governor advocated for opening up trade, so some senators may look for encouragement from him there too.

Peach State Past

After decades in public life, Perdue will have a hard time running from his past should Democrats choose to go there. His multiple brush-ups with the Georgia ethics office from his time as governor could reemerge, as well as an infamous tax break he received that helped him buy land near Disney World. Another episode that could get attention is his role in the debate over Georgia’s flag, when as a state senator he opposed the former Gov. Roy Barnes’ plan to shrink the Rebel emblem on the state flag.

Meanwhile, Perdue will be getting backup from two old Georgia pals, retired GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss and U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta. Perdue’s boosters are hoping that the former, a onetime member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, will provide some extra gravitas with members of the panel, while Scott could up Perdue's bipartisan credentials. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and National Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall will also be there.

Regional Differences

The senators who represent New York’s dairy farmers have different priorities than the Californians whose districts are dotted by produce farms. Ditto for the South’s peanuts, rice and blueberries versus the Midwest’s corn, soybeans and livestock. Regional fights are rumored to be one of the reasons why it took Trump so long to pick an ag nominee in the first place, and Perdue’s appointment is notable since he would become the first southerner to lead the department in more than two decades.

Expect each senator to ask about specific crops and other parochial concerns important to their home states. As for Perdue, watch for him to go out of his way to emphasize his knowledge of those issues — he’s been cramming for two months — and to otherwise repeat over and over again how he’s open to working with each senators on their pet issues. With everyone preparing for a new Farm Bill fight in 2018, every party is looking to curry favor.

Debbie Stabenow

The committee’s top Democrat is a well-respected voice on agriculture, and many on the left look to the Michigander for guidance as they make their own decisions on various issues. Democratic leaders have tasked her with taking the lead on Perdue’s nomination. So far, Stabenow has kept her opinion to herself.

It is undoubtedly important for Perdue to win her approval, but it’s not critical, since several Democratic senators have already gone out of their way to announce their support. Worth noting is that Stabenow is up for reelection next year in a state that Trump narrowly carried in the presidential election.

The road ahead

Barring any eleventh hour bombshells, it’s all but assured that Perdue will be confirmed. A 2013 Senate rules change lowered the threshold for Senate confirmation from 60 to 51. Republican allies say they expect Perdue to attract much more support since he’s garnered glowing reviews from some Democrats.

If confirmed, Perdue promised to step down from his business holding company and put his assets into a blind trust.

Senate committees tend to wait at least a week after an official’s confirmation hearing before moving to advance the nomination. That means it might be April until Perdue sees an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

Perdue’s hearing begins at 10 a.m. and can be live-streamed on agriculture.senate.gov. Check back to Political Insider for updates throughout the day.

Read more: 

Perdue to get backup from old Dem pal at Senate hearing

Democrats take aim at Perdue’s flag stance ahead of ag secretary hearing

Sonny Perdue, Trump’s ag pick, still awaits Senate vetting

3 minutes, 1 tax bill, $100,000 for Perdue

Like Trump, Sonny Perdue once had questions asked about his finances

Perdue notches early compliments from Democrats

Democratic ex-agriculture secretary endorses Perdue

Georgians Tom Price, Sonny Perdue adjust to life at political pinnacle

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that...