Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and ranking member John Boozman said they supported Xochitl Torres Small to become Agriculture deputy secretary, all but assuring her promotion from undersecretary for rural development.
“It is clear to me that Ms. Torres Small has a proven track record as a strong leader, which will be needed as the department faces unprecedented challenges like tackling the climate crisis and helping farmers manage geopolitical risks,” Stabenow, D-Mich., said at a hearing Wednesday.
Boozman, R-Ark., who said he was dissatisfied with the Agriculture Department’s failure to provide him information about potentially billions of dollars in unspent pandemic funds, said he hoped Torres Small would improve transparency as the department’s second most senior leader.
“Let me be absolutely clear, I do not believe that you are responsible for this specific issue,” Boozman said to Torres Small. “As the deputy, you must provide leadership to USDA’s appointed officials and the career agency heads and create a culture of accountability.”
Torres Small told the committee Wednesday that she would be “part manager and part departmental ambassador” as deputy secretary. She would be the chief operating officer responsible for strategic planning for a department that operates 29 agencies and offices and employs about 100,000 people who largely work outside the Beltway.
President Joe Biden nominated Torres Small for the post after Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh left the department in February.
Torres Small, a water rights lawyer before she served in the House during the 116th Congress, grew up in southwestern New Mexico and represented a mostly rural district. She is the daughter of educators and the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who were farmworkers.
She was confirmed in late 2021 as undersecretary, a role that gives her oversight of programs that provide loans and grants for rural businesses, clean water projects in small towns and the ReConnect program to give rural communities with access to broadband service.
She seems to have generated goodwill from committee members with visits to their states and troubleshooting problems that lawmakers have identified such as cumbersome applications and regulations that are obstacles for small communities with little or no staff. She also said she has made it a priority to meet with field staff across the country to build a “Team RD” to focus on priorities.
“When I started working as undersecretary for rural development, I realized there is a real need to focus on operations because it is fundamental to making sure rural people have the rural development they deserve, that there are programs that are easy to access,” she said.
“If confirmed as deputy secretary, I would want to focus on being that customer service agency that our farmers and rural people rely on and all of the backend work that supports that effort,” Torres Small told Stabenow.
She also said USDA employees are key to delivering services and maintaining connections to the communities they serve.
“Our employees at rural development and USDA face significant challenges, whether it’s outdated technology that hinders their ability to comply with congressional directives, antiquated loan and grant applications that means we’re not serving the people who need and deserve our support,” she said. “The people of this department, it’s the glue that connects our programs together and much more importantly connects our programs to the people who deserve our support.”
Bennet, saying the USDA’s rural development efforts involve an unnecessary and antiquated process, cited a Mineral County, Colo., effort to apply for a community facilities grant. The county, with a population of fewer than 1,000 and a staff of three, waited two months for a response to their proposal and then had to advertise the project three times in a printed newspaper to be eligible.
“I’ve been on this committee for 14 years and I feel like things have not gotten better,” he said, adding that it took an extra year for the county to receive the grant.
Torres Small agreed that the process had taken too long and that it’s too cumbersome to get exceptions to the steps required on competitive bids.
“Now I agree with you in rural places that doesn’t always work and finding an engineer is really hard. The more you’re able to bring us these challenges, we can dig into the details, find out what the problem is and fix it for that person, but also look at the policy behind it,” she said.
Marshall said USDA still doesn’t have enough people in the field to deliver services and pressed Torres Small on how many employees still work remotely rather than from the office as the COVID-19 pandemic has waned.
“Agriculture is not a job that is accomplished well from home. Our farmers and ranchers have to go out and work in the elements every day,” Marshall said. “Are people at USDA back in the office yet? How do you measure that?”
Torres Small said she agrees “that physical presence in the office matters. It matters that somebody can walk up to a field office and there is somebody there to open the door and talk with them about their challenges.”
But she also said flexibility helps retain workers, especially as more than 30 percent of USDA employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.
Marshall countered that “people signed up to work for the government. No one said they could work from home. I think we would be much better served to have our employees back to work.”