Obstruction of appointments unites 42 agriculture groups


For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON -- Major farm groups are praising President Obama's March 27 appointments of Islam Siddiqui as chief U.S. agriculture negotiator and two other officials whose nominations had been held up in the Senate.

These other recess appointees are Michael Punke, a Montanan, as deputy U.S. trade representative and head of the Trade Representative's Geneva office, and former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, D-Ind., as a member of the Farm Credit Administration board. Siddiqui formerly worked for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

President Obama made a total of 15 recess appointments on March 27. Republicans criticized him for not following normal procedure, but Obama has said that Republicans were preventing him from hiring needed government officials.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., had placed holds on Punke and Siddiqui to push the administration to pressure Canada to repeal parts of an anti-smoking law passed there that he believes disadvantages Kentucky tobacco.

Forty-two agriculture groups organized as the AgTrade Coalition have been campaigning since last year to get Punke and Siddiqui confirmed. In January the 42 groups wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressing "deep concern" about the delays in the Senate confirmations of Punke and Siddiqui.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, who did not sign the earlier letter, defended Obama's decision to make the recess appointments, saying the nominations had been held up so long the president had no alternative.

"It is hard to hold anyone accountable if you don't give the appointments for the jobs that the law requires them to do," he said.

Punke is a former aide to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and USTR official in the Clinton administration. Siddiqui is a former USDA official and a vice president for biotechnology and trade for CropLife America. Siddiqui spent 28 years with the California Department of Food and Agriculture before he joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Clinton administration. Before joining CropLife, Siddiqui was a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

"We applaud the appointments of Mr. Punke and Mr. Siddiqui," said Corn Refiners Association President Audrae Erickson, who had coordinated the January letter. "These two positions are critical in ensuring that agriculture remains a player in the global marketplace and that more jobs are created from trade for the U.S. economy."

"These two appointments are very important for not only agriculture, but trade in general. The holds on their conformations had nothing to do with their qualifications, so we are pleased President Obama made the recess appointments," said the American Farm Bureau Federation."

John Keeling of the National Potato Council Potato Council noted that Obama had made a doubling of exports one of the goals of his administration and said achieving that goal would be impossible without filling key trade positions.

The American Farmland Trust, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council also praised Obama's decision to fill the positions.

The National Cotton Council said the Senate should confirm Punke and Siddiqui so that they can continue to serve beyond December 2011, when the recess appointments expire.

Siddiqui also got an endorsement from National Farmers Union's Johnson, who said Siddiqui had gotten a "bum rap" when small farm and organic groups opposed him because his work for CropLife America had involved representing Monsanto and other agribusiness companies. The National Family Farm Coalition, which had opposed Siddqui's nomination, did not return an email seeking comment.

Farm Credit Council President Ken Auer praised Thompson's appointment, saying her experience as a House member and as undersecretary for rural development at USDA in the Clinton administration makes her "tremendously qualified to serve as a member of the FCA board."

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