On February 6, 2018 the House Agriculture Committee hosted Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue for a hearing entitled, “The State of the Rural Economy.” The hearing marked Secretary Perdue’s second appearance before the committee since he was confirmed, and he received bipartisan praise from the committee for his leadership on agriculture issues within the Administration.
Members also took the opportunity to examine Secretary Perdue’s priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill, NAFTA renegotiations, and rural development. In his opening remarks, Perdue stated frankly that the state of the rural economy is “fragile,” underlining the importance of the 2018 Farm Bill as a safety net for America’s growers. Despite Secretary Perdue’s support for the safety net, Democrats expressed concerns that conservatives in the House will push for significant reductions to the 2018 Farm Bill and undermine programs that growers rely on for financial sustainability.
Throughout the question and answer segment of the hearing Secretary Perdue received multiple questions from members on rural broadband. Secretary Perdue repeatedly reaffirmed his belief in the importance of broadband deployment in rural America, and cited a study from the USDA’s Rural Prosperity Task Force which found that closing the digital divide is a critical step towards revitalizing the rural economy. Secretary Perdue provided few specifics on what steps his agency is taking to close the digital divide, but he told the committee that his office is working closely with the Office of American Innovation within the White House to secure federal funds for broadband deployment. Secretary Perdue said his agency is working closely with the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Commerce, state and local governments, and the private sector to develop a nationwide strategy on broadband deployment.
Representative Rodney Davis (R-Illinois asked about establishing quality control practices within the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) for service provider subsidies programs. RUS is an office within the USDA that was charged with administering broadband subsidies under an Obama-era stimulus package in 2009, but was broadly criticized for mishandling billions of dollars in federal funds.
After the House Agriculture hearing, President Trump announced his intent to nominate Kenneth Johnson as the next Administrator of the RUS. The nomination was welcomed by the Rural Broadband Association (RBA) for Johnson’s industry experience as CEO of the Co-Mo electric Co-op. "Given Mr. Johnson’s rural industry experience, we are eager to work with him on these efforts and to ensure continued efficient and coordinated use of resources across the various RUS programs and the many other federal initiatives aimed at both promoting and sustaining rural broadband,” RBA said in a statement.