At her weekly news conference Nov. 14, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she would be wearing a “Free Bill” T-shirt when she met with other members of the Republican Governor’s Association in Texas this week. Reynolds, at her press conference in Des Moines, held up the shirt for everyone to see. Texas is home to Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator who is blocking Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey’s nomination to a top job at USDA.
The T-shirt idea originated with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, when he was in Des Moines on Nov. 10, meeting with farmers, farm organization leaders, Iowa officials and the press. Perdue suggested Iowans start a “Free Bill Northey” campaign. Northey’s nomination has been approved by the U.S. Senate Ag Committee, but is awaiting approval by the full Senate. Progress on this matter has been stalled for quite a while. The Trump administration nominated Northey for the USDA job back in September.
Why is Cruz blocking Northey’s nomination?
Cruz, a Texas Republican, is holding back Northey’s nomination as USDA’s new undersecretary for farm production and conservation. Cruz represents Texas oil interests. Thus, Northey is caught in a flap between big oil, and ethanol and biodiesel supporters. Iowa is the leading state in production of these two renewable fuels.
Iowa’s two U.S. senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Republicans, last month helped to successfully stop the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to decrease the amount of renewable fuel required to be blended into the nation’s gasoline and diesel fuel supply. These biofuel blending volumes are set to increase each year according to the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate. The oil industry opposes the RFS and has frequently sought ways to weaken or repeal it.
Grassley, Ernst and others, including Reynolds, are continuing to put pressure on the Trump administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to support the RFS and to leave it alone. By Nov. 30 EPA is supposed to make a decision on the volume requirements for blending ethanol and biodiesel into the nation’s motor fuel supply in the coming year. EPA, by law, must set these required volume obligations (RVOs) for 2018 for ethanol and 2019 for biodiesel.
Intraparty squabble over renewable fuels
Northey, who farms near Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa, is “a quality candidate for the USDA undersecretary position,” said Perdue. “Bill is an authentic farmer. He’s trusted in Iowa. We need his expertise. We need him on the job at USDA.”
Expressing his disappointment and frustration with the Senate confirmation process, Perdue described the situation as “an intraparty squabble” over renewable fuels. He said President Donald Trump administration officials won’t meet with Cruz because it has been U.S. policy “not to negotiate with hostage-takers.”
Cruz confirmed on Nov.16 he will keep blocking Northey’s nomination until Cruz gets a meeting with Trump to discuss the Renewable Fuel Standard. In a letter sent to Reynolds, Cruz said he wanted to “clarify the intent of my efforts to find a win-win solution.” Cruz sent the letter almost three weeks after national media began reporting the senator’s hold on Northey’s nomination.
Cruz acknowledges blocking Northey nomination
Cruz said Northey, as a USDA undersecretary, would play “a critical role in formulating RFS policy. Accordingly, I have placed a hold on the nomination of Bill Northey, until and unless we secure the aforementioned meeting where we can bring diverse interests together to try to find meaningful short-term solutions while setting the stage for longer-term policy certainty.”
Cruz ran for U.S. president last year and won Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, although he voiced opposition to the RFS even as he crisscrossed Iowa campaigning for president. Cruz wrote in the letter to Reynolds that the current RFS law is being subverted by “fast-talking bankers on Wall Street” who have driven up the price for the RIN credits refiners must purchase to meet the federal RFS mandate. Corn growers and refiners alike have an interest in reforming the system to prevent such speculation, said Cruz.
Hold on Northey ‘unnecessary’
“The hold on Bill Northey’s nomination for the undersecretary position is unnecessary,” said Brenna Smith, press secretary for Reynolds. “Secretary Northey is an incredibly qualified candidate and should be confirmed immediately.”
Cruz and a group of U.S. senators from oil-refining states have requested a meeting with Trump to talk about the RFS. Without changes to the RFS, the senators have argued their states stand to lose thousands of jobs. “Our goal in requesting this meeting is simple: to bring together diverse interests and find a mutually beneficial outcome that will help both Iowa corn farmers as well as protect blue-collar refinery jobs that are at risk in too many states across our nation,” Cruz said.
This hold on Bill Northey’s nomination isn’t the first time Cruz has clashed with ethanol and pro-RFS interests in Iowa. During his 2016 Iowa caucus campaign, Cruz says he was consistently asked about his stance on the RFS and followed by a renewable fuel industry group that called him out for past opposition.