A sigh of relief was heard across Iowa on Feb. 27; Bill Northey was finally confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve in a top post at USDA. His approval by voice vote ended a four-month-long stalemate in which Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas blocked the nomination.
Northey, a farmer from Spirit Lake, served admirably as Iowa ag secretary for the past decade. He was nominated by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last fall to be USDA undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation.
In a statement issued immediately after his confirmation last week, Northey said: “It is a tremendous honor for me to be confirmed to serve as undersecretary of agriculture. I thank President Trump for nominating me and Sec. Perdue for his support and encouragement throughout the confirmation process. I also thank Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst for their strong support and tireless work on behalf of my nomination. I greatly appreciate the entire Senate Ag Committee for their bipartisan support of my nomination. I look forward to continuing to work closely with them in this new role.”
Northey added, “While this process has taken longer than expected, I remain as excited as ever to work with Sec. Perdue and staff at USDA to support our nation’s farmers and ranchers.”
Northey expressed his appreciation to the people of Iowa “for affording me the opportunity to serve in this role as Iowa secretary of agriculture for the past 11 years. Working and learning from the men and women who make Iowa agriculture the dynamic and productive industry that feeds the world has been the honor of a lifetime.”
Grassley and Ernst, both Republicans like Northey, said his confirmation is good news for farmers. “I’m thrilled to see the Senate confirm Bill Northey,” Ernst told reporters. “His long overdue confirmation to this essential role at USDA is great news for our state and our country. His experience as a farmer and as Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture makes him ideal for this USDA position.”
Early in 2017 it was rumored Northey was being considered for a USDA job in Washington, D.C., but months passed before anything was officially announced. On Sept. 1, the Trump administration said Northey would be nominated for the USDA appointment. Then later in the fall Cruz, a Republican from oil-producing Texas, put a hold on Northey’s nomination.
The hold had nothing to do with Northey, but rather was a move by Cruz to try to force Congress and the Trump administration to dismantle the Renewable Fuel Standard and change the way Renewable Identification Numbers are priced. The RFS requires oil companies to blend a certain amount of ethanol and biodiesel into the nation’s motor fuel supply each year.
Cruz claims RIN prices are hurting the oil industry. At a recent rally supporting refinery workers, he said RINs are to blame for a large oil refinery’s bankruptcy in Pennsylvania. The biofuels industry and independent economists point out there are other factors to blame, including financial decisions made by the refinery’s management team. Cruz is running for re-election.
Cruz lifts his hold on nomination
The hold on Northey’s nomination was viewed as an attempt to gain leverage in the biofuels dispute, and Iowa Republicans pressured Cruz, winner of the 2012 Republican presidential caucuses, to lift the hold. In a letter to Cruz, they pointedly told the Texan he endangered his chances of winning the Iowa presidential caucuses in the future if he persisted in blocking Northey’s nomination.
Northey’s nomination was confirmed by the Senate on the same day several farm-state and oil-state senators (including Cruz) met with Trump and other officials at the White House to discuss the RFS and RIN controversy.
In the Senate that morning, Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, made the motion to vote on Northey’s nomination. After the vote, Iowa Republicans and farm groups praised Northey. “Bill Northey is a talented, passionate, hard-working Iowan, and I’m excited to see him serve in this new role,” said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
“For the past decade, Bill Northey has served admirably as Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture,” said Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill, pointing to Northey’s key role in developing and implementing Iowa’s voluntary nutrient reduction strategy.
No ‘deal’ reached at White House meetings
Grassley and Ernst were present at the Feb. 27 White House meeting, and afterward said no promises were made by Trump to change the RFS or the RIN pricing formula. They pointed out to Trump and other administration officials that Cruz is miss-stating the facts regarding the economic impact of the RFS on the bankrupt refinery.
On March 1, for the second time in a week, a meeting was held by Trump at the White House to discuss possible reforms to the RFS. Representatives of the petroleum industry, renewable fuels industry and several senators were present — the same senators who attended the first meeting earlier in the week.
Grassley summed up the March 1 meeting: “Both sides made their case and the only agreement was to look at economic studies for impact. No decisions were made. Low corn prices are already squeezing farmers’ bottom lines. If the RFS were undermined with a RIN price cap or waiver, the financial situation for farmers would be made even worse. Thousands of jobs in the biofuel industry in rural America could be lost. An emerging solution appears to be the government allowing year-round sale of the E15 ethanol blend, which would drive down RIN prices. After crossing the 15-billion-gallon-per-year threshold and more ethanol being produced and used, RIN prices would drop dramatically and remain low. Studies prove it.”
Biofuel, petroleum industries to continue talks
Cruz and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., issued a joint statement after the March 1 meeting: “We are encouraged that President Trump recognizes the importance of providing relief from RIN costs and expanding the potential market for ethanol; that will benefit farmers by letting them sell more corn, and refinery workers by saving their jobs in states including Pennsylvania and Texas.”
They added, “We are grateful for the commitment to continue talks that will result in a win-win solution for both parties. We had a productive meeting today with senators on both sides, along with representatives from the unions, ethanol and refining industries, and motor fuel retailers. We are making real progress, and with the president’s leadership, we believe we can and will ultimately solve the problem.”
Indeed, Northey right choice for USDA job
Perdue praised the long-awaited confirmation of Northey last week: “I applaud Bill Northey’s patience over these many months, which shows what a strong leader he will be at USDA. We thank everyone who worked on his confirmation.”
Northey will arrive at USDA as the new 2018 Farm Bill is being written in Congress to address farm program needs of America’s farmers. “In addition,” Perdue said, “Bill’s leadership will be key in the new mission area of his Undersecretary of Agriculture position. He will be in charge of the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency, providing an even better customer experience. I’m excited to finally have Bill on board.”
Mark Recker, Iowa Corn Growers Association president, is “thankful to have someone with such a deep ag leadership background in this vital position.”
Bill Shipley, Iowa Soybean Association president, says Northey’s skills are needed “as issues impacting the profitability of farmers continue to grow. That includes writing the new farm bill, maintaining and opening new trade markets for U.S. ag products and having policies and regulations that favor a strong ag economy.”
Representatives of the biofuel industry also applaud Northey’s confirmation. “We are pleased to see Bill Northey finally confirmed by the Senate,” says Bob Dinneen, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. “This is long overdue. Bill is eminently qualified to help our nation’s farmers, but unfortunately his nomination fell victim to political games. There is no better champion for farmers than Bill Northey. His is the right person for the job and will be an enormous asset to USDA Sec. Perdue.”