By Jason Huffman | 05/17/2017 10:00 AM EDT

With help from Jenny Hopkinson, Adam Behsudi, Catherine Boudreau

SONNY PERDUE TAKES THE STAGE AT HOUSE AG: It's a high stakes moment for the new Agriculture secretary as he faces questions before the House Ag committee about his controversial USDA reorganization plans today. The hearing will consider the state of the rural economy, and Perdue will likely have to defend his decision to eliminate the undersecretary of rural development, which coordinates billions in loans and grant programs supporting rural housing, health care and water and utility projects. The plan would instead serve those ends by creating an assistant to the secretary position. Lawmakers may look for Perdue to pledge that the change won't result in USDA's rural development mission falling by the wayside, especially as politicians grapple with how to appeal to small-town Americans whose frustrations swayed the presidential election.

What about the trade post? The creation of an undersecretary for trade is widely supported by the agricultural industry, but lawmakers are sure to press for details on what the Trump administration's trajectory on trade will be. "There are a lot of players in this administration focused on trade, and there are concerns that agricultural interests could fall through the cracks," said Rachel Millard, spokeswoman for the House Agriculture Committee. Chairman Mike Conaway wants to know more about how Perdue will work with newly confirmed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other White House advisers.

And the budget? The White House is putting finishing touches on a budget proposal, expected to be unveiled May 23. USDA programs have been targeted for a 21 percent cut, and farm state lawmakers are sure to push back on that proposal. With farmers and ranchers struggling amid a four-year drop in commodity prices and profits, any budget proposal that makes developing the 2018 farm bill more difficult could threaten a top priority of Conaway and other negotiators of the law: enacting it on time, Millard said.

Let's talk farm bill money: The GOP's cost-cutting agenda is likely to leave negotiators strapped for cash for the 2018 farm bill, despite the fact that agriculture and nutrition programs from the 2014 installment are saving taxpayers billions more than expected, reports Pro Ag's Catherine Boudreau this morning. Instead of reaping the nearly $90 billion in savings and packing it into the barn for next year, any changes to the farm bill that increase support for one sector will need to be offset somewhere else within the law - all in the name of being deficit-neutral. It's a scenario all too familiar for veterans of farm bill negotiations, when producers form alliances based on crops and region, and fight over a shrinking pot of money. Pros, read it here.

HAPPY WEDNESDAY, MAY 17! Welcome to Morning Ag, where your regular host will be taking a few days of downtime to recharge the batteries but wants you to know that you will be in more than capable hands. Send your questions, comments and tips to jhuffman@politico.com or @JsonHuffman. Follow the whole team at @Morning_Ag.

AG GROUPS PUSH TO GET MORE DEMOCRATS BEHIND REG RELIEF BILL: Agriculture industry groups are happy to have Democrats Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) backing a regulatory relief bill as it heads to markup at the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee today along with 10 other bills. But they've been pushing to get more, instructing their members to blitz other Democrats on the panel, including Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Tom Carper (Del.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Gary Peters (Mich.) Margaret Hassan (N.H.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.).

"The more support we have coming out of the committee, the more it will help the bill move in the Senate," said Jess McCluer, the National Grain and Feed Association's VP of safety and regulatory affairs.

Are the ag groups taking Republican votes for granted? The American Farm Bureau Federation hasn't ignored GOP senators in its lobbying effort, and has asked its state chapters to contact lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, said Paul Schlegel, the group's director of energy and environment policy. "But nobody has gotten back to us to say there is a problem with [getting Republicans on board]."

The Regulatory Accountability Act (S. 951), which was introduced on April 26 by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and is also co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), proposes to ease regulatory burdens by amending the Administrative Procedures Act in a significant way for the first time in 70 years. It would require regulatory agencies to consider cost-effective alternatives to the most expensive rules and the "best reasonably available" science, a summary explains. New rules would have to be reviewed no less than 10 years after their effective date. But it would only hit new regulations and not existing or even proposed rules, leaving the current iteration of the Waters of the U.S. rule out of harm's way, for example. The bill would prohibit regulatory agencies from using funds to advocate for comments on a proposal, a direct slap at the EPA for a 2015 social media campaign used to generate comments on the WOTUS rule.

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The Portman, Heitkamp bill has broad support from the business community with more than 600 groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, signing a letter urging Senate leaders to vote on it. But agriculture groups are taking a lot of the credit for it, saying in a letter sent to lawmakers that it was built from principals laid out in a 14-page white paper they shared with Capitol Hill staff in October. The paper quotes executive orders and memorandums from multiple presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Environmental and government watchdog groups argue the bill would deliver on White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon's vision of "deconstructing the administrative state" while delaying necessary protections for years. "Our regulatory process for protecting the public is broken due to unacceptable delays and it would make the process even more paralyzed," Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen, told Morning Energy.

ROBERTS: LIGHTHIZER KNOWS WHAT TO DO: Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said Tuesday that he was more comfortable with the direction of the administration's trade policy now that Lighthizer is at the helm of the agency that will renegotiate NAFTA and attempt to strike a number of new bilateral trade deals. "I think Bob Lighthizer knows that we have to sell our product and he also knows that it's just as important to sell things that we grow as it is to sell things that we make," the Kansas Republican told a group of reporters. "I think there are other folks that have different philosophies on trade, but Bob isn't one of those folks."

While the current focus is on the renegotiation of NAFTA and trade relations with China, Lighthizer is interested in turning next to Asia and to countries that had been part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to forge bilateral deals, Roberts said in a separate interview later in the day, after a meeting with the new USTR.

Roberts also defended the USDA reshuffle that would downgrade the department's Senate-confirmed rural development undersecretary position and create a new undersecretary for trade position. "I know Sonny Perdue feels very strongly that we need an undersecretary for trade more especially at this particular time," he said. "It isn't at the expense of, it's in addition to ... I can assure you as chairman rural development comes very high."

CANADA DAIRY PROGRAM STILL ON THE RADAR: Roberts on Tuesday also joined with his ranking colleague on the Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, to call on Lighthizer and Perdue to "evaluate all tools" to mitigate the negative impact of a controversial Canadian dairy pricing program. "As the U.S. considers a renegotiation of NAFTA it is imperative that America's hard working farmers and ranchers remain a top priority," the two senators say in a letter.

FORMER FSIS CHIEF VET SAYS CATFISH CHANGE MAKES SENSE: The Food Safety and Inspection Service's notice, published Tuesday, brings the oversight of catfish in line with that of other meat processors it regulates, said Bill James, a former chief veterinarian at FSIS, where he worked for 28 years. It would change the agency's requirement of having inspectors in catfish processing facilities at all hours of operation to once per production shift.

Food & Water Watch senior food lobbyist Tony Corbo said on Tuesday that he was having attorneys review the move, which is set to go into effect on Sept. 1, as it changes FSIS' definition of "slaughter" to mean "processing." Inspectors are required to monitor the slaughter of animals around the clock. But James, who was hired by the catfish industry in 2015 to help it comply with the transition from FDA to FSIS, said the rollback makes sense, especially given that some of the U.S.'s 16 catfish processing facilities are so small that "an inspector can stand in the middle of the plant, turn 360 degrees, and see the whole thing."

DEMS TO PRESS FOR MORE FOREST SERVICE FUNDS: The House Natural Resources Committee's federal lands panel will take a look at increased forest management activities when it convenes at 2 p.m. today. Democrats on the panel will press for additional Forest Service funding and call on Republicans to acknowledge the climate change-related factors in increased wildfires: "Serious forest policy has to account for climate change making our forests drier than ever and fund Forest Service fire prevention adequately, and Republicans refuse to do either," ranking member Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement.

PRUITT MET WITH WESTERN GROWERS: The EPA still isn't releasing his daily schedules, but Administrator Scott Pruitt tweeted about two meetings on Tuesday. One was with Western Growers, a group that represents produce farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, where they discussed "agricultural issues facing our farmers and ranchers & how we can work together." More than 25 members of Western Growers' board of directors and staff are in town this week for a fly in. The other involved Rep. Bill Flores, former chairman of the Republican Study Committee.

Sonny's busy day: Meanwhile, over at the Agriculture Department- where the schedules of the secretary also aren't being made public- Perdue started his day with a breakfast with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, then met with members of USA Rice and Western Growers, according to tweets from the secretary and those groups. In an article published Tuesday, the rice industry says it talked "trade, flooding in the mid-south, the upcoming farm bill, labor shortages in California, food aid, and the importance of rice research programs" with him.

HOW SHOULD USDA FUND UNIVERSITY RESEARCH? While the discussion over how to improve agricultural research often comes down to funding, USDA officials should also look into how they direct the resources they have. A new report from the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities detailing how research is the key to ensuring food security also calls for a more systematic approach to how the government seeks proposal for solving larger questions in food and agriculture. For example, Sabine O'Hara, dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia, recommends that instead of just funding projects that find a cure for a given animal disease, USDA should also call for research into how that disease spreads and other factors.

"When we look at things too narrowly, often we miss junctures where there is an acceleration of the impacts," O'Hara told MA on the sidelines of a launch event for the report in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. O'Hara chaired a chapter in the report on supply chains and food waste.

What's in the report: The need for novel technologies, rethought distribution networks and more inclusive and equitable farming practices to grow nutritionally dense food on less land and resources. For example, gene edited livestock could be resistant to key diseases, preventing the need for drugs and other chemical. Vertical gardens and urban farms in empty lots or on green roofs could provide highly perishable fruits and vegetables to urban dwellers. And more communication between universities could prevent repeated projects.

The farm bill angle: While the report broadly makes the case for the importance of agriculture research in meeting the food and nutrition needs of a growing global population, it does point to 2018 farm bill as an "opportunity to expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commitments to global food security and expand the department's partnership with U.S. universities" as part of the needed groundwork that must be in place to meet food security needs.

MA'S INSTANT OATS:

- The owners of a 2,000 acre organic farm in Oregon are citing religious beliefs as their reason for not spraying pesticides, but the county government says it might do the spraying itself and bill the farm if a weed management plan isn't soon produced, the Associated Press reports.

- So-called "ag gag" laws are being considered in no less than three U.S. appellate courts, Food Safety News reports.

- Greg Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, makes the case for regulating biotech crops based on risk and not which technology was used to make the modification in a new blog post.

THAT'S ALL FOR MA! See you again soon! In the meantime, drop your host and the rest of the team a line: cboudreau@politico.com and @ceboudreau; jhopkinson@politico.com and @JennyHops; hbottemiller@politico.com and @hbottemiller; bgriffiths@politico.com and @BrentGriffiths; and jhuffman@politico.com and @JsonHuffman. You can also follow @POLITICOPro and @Morning_Ag on Twitter.

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