Northey Works for Iowa While Waiting for Washington

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey stays busy while waiting for Congress to vote on his nomination. ( Iowa Department of Agriculture )

It’s been a long waiting game for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. Northey was nominated five months ago to serve as USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation, but the vote is still held up.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) reportedly put a hold on Northey’s nomination on Oct. 26, in response to Iowa Senators Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst’s efforts to block action by the EPA to reduce the renewable fuels standard.

In a letter to Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Cruz explained his decision: “One of the main issues in RFS policy that has recently come under particular scrutiny is Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs). As you know, refiners must meet their annual obligation under the RFS by submitting a set amount of credits, or RINs. Unfortunately, RIN prices – an artificial government-created construct – continue to skyrocket and the result is hurting refiners and the men and women they employ all across the country.”

The National Corn Growers Association feels the hold by Cruz is unnecessary. The full Senate had the opportunity to approve Northey's nomination this week, and the meetings Cruz requested were held on Dec. 7 and Dec. 13 to find a "mutually beneficial solution," but the hold remains. 

Kevin Skunes, a farmer from North Dakota and NCGA president, says farmers need Bill Northey on the job at USDA, and noted that Senator Cruz’s hold is "harmful to farmers."

“Whether it’s EPA, financial analysts or university experts, all confirm refiners are not facing a RIN price impact because they recover any costs through the price they receive for their refined products,” Skunes said in a statement on Wednesday. “Senator Cruz is trying to upend the RFS to address a non-existent problem and bail out refiners who have made poor business decisions. Unlike farmers – who USDA projects will face the lowest net farm income since 2006 this year – most refiners are reporting surging profits.”

He added that “corn farmers are grateful for the leadership of Senators Chuck Grassley, Debbie Stabenow, Joni Ernst and Amy Klobuchar in supporting Bill Northey’s nomination on the Senate floor. Corn farmers also appreciate President Trump’s strong support of biofuels, rural communities and consumers.”

Northey told KTIV news station in November that things were “moving along” pretty well until Cruz’s hold, and at that time, he didn’t know if it would be days, weeks or months before there was a resolution.

That forecast has reached its furthest limits. The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee voted in favor of Northey’s nomination and sent it to a full floor vote on Oct. 19.

Strong Support, and Calls to “Free Bill”
Northey’s record as Iowa’s top agriculture official is unquestioned. As a fourth-generation farmer from Spirit Lake, Iowa, he has been an advocate for farmers during his 11 years as secretary of agriculture. He has been particularly vocal on water quality and has worked tirelessly bring together government and industry groups to address the issue (read this interview with Northey on water quality).

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds is unhappy about the situation.

"It’s time to 'free Bill' and we need to move on," Reynolds said at a weekly press conference in Des Moines last November. "He’s a great Secretary of Ag and he would do a great job representing farmers and ranchers all across this country..."

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has made it clear that he wants Northey confirmed as well.

Northey is "a quality candidate," Perdue told the Des Moines Register, adding that he needs him working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He's "an authentic farmer himself. He's trusted in Iowa," Perdue said about Northey in that interview.

With issues like immigration and a government shutdown facing members of Congress, it appears unlikely that Northey’s nomination will be considered in the near future.

When Farm Journal reached out to Secretary Northey’s office this week, Dustin Vande Hoef, Communications Director for the secretary said there “isn’t much new information on the status of Sec. Northey’s nomination.” He said Sens. Grassley and Ernst “have been working hard on the issue.”

“Secretary Northey is still enjoying being Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and is focused on that,” Vande Hoef wrote in an email. “The Iowa Legislature just passed long-term funding for water quality and Gov. Reynolds signed it into law last week, so we are excited about the important work being done here as well.”

If or when he’s approved for the USDA post, Northey would resign as Iowa’s agriculture secretary, and Gov. Reynolds, would choose someone to finish out his term.