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Senate confirms Torres Small as deputy secretary at USDA

Pledge to streamline USDA operations

Xochitl Torres Small, a former member of Congress from New Mexico, was confirmed as deputy Agriculture secretary by the Senate on Tuesday.
Xochitl Torres Small, a former member of Congress from New Mexico, was confirmed as deputy Agriculture secretary by the Senate on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate voted 84-8 Tuesday to confirm Xochitl Torres Small as deputy secretary of the Agriculture Department, a post in which she will act as chief operating officer for a sprawling department.

Torres Small, who became undersecretary for rural development in late 2021, is a former House member who represented a largely rural New Mexico district. She was a water rights lawyer before she entered the 116th Congress and grew up in southwestern New Mexico as the daughter of educators and the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who were farmworkers.

As deputy secretary, Torres Small will be 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 her for the department’s No. 2 spot after Jewel Bronaugh resigned and left the department in February. 

The Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously reported out her nomination on May 17 with praise from Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., as a strong leader. 

Stabenow said Monday she had hoped to bring the nomination to the floor earlier through unanimous consent but that route was blocked by a Republican senator who takes issue with some USDA policies. Stabenow would not name the senator.

“She has broad support, but there are always people who have issues with the department. She really is someone who is respected on both sides of the aisle,” Stabenow said of Torres Small.

As rural development undersecretary, Torres Small has oversight of a portfolio including the ReConnect program, which funds projects to give rural communities access to broadband service. Rural development programs also provide loans and grants for rural businesses, clean water projects in small towns and community facilities that serve local needs.

Torres Small generated goodwill among committee members with visits to their states and troubleshooting problems such as cumbersome applications and regulations that lawmakers have identified as obstacles for small communities with little or no staff of their own. 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.

Stabenow said she and Boozman have talked with Torres Small about streamlining lengthy applications for various programs. Witnesses during hearings on the implementation of programs under the current farm bill cited time-consuming applications and drawn-out department reviews as barriers to participation, especially for beginning farmers or farmers with small operations.

“We want her to focus on that. I’m confident that she will,” Stabenow said. 

During her May 10 nomination hearing, Torres Small laid out her views about the Agriculture Department’s mission. She said USDA employees are key to delivering services and maintaining connections to the communities they serve.

“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 said. 

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