WASHINGTON ― In the past three months, President Donald Trump has signed a number of executive orders that didn’t actually effect substantive changes, but which established task forces to study policy and, eventually, recommend possible courses of action.
On Tuesday, he signed another one, this time about farms.
Tuesday’s order, which Trump signed surrounded by farmers and ranchers, focuses on agriculture and rural development, which the Trump administration claims had been neglected by the Obama administration.
“We continue a very relentless effort to make life better for Americans, and that includes the farmers and the people gathered around this table and including our ranchers and rural community folks,” Trump said at the White House.
The president also complained about Canadian restrictions on dairy imports from the U.S. “This has been going on for a while. We are not going to put up with it,” he said, adding that the U.S. had slapped a tariff on Canadian lumber.
The order Trump signed Tuesday is modest. It terminates a rural council that President Barack Obama created with an executive order in 2011, and replaces that council with a task force that will similarly be chaired by the secretary of agriculture and joined by officials from other agencies in the executive branch.
“The executive order is ― well, it’s just pretty limp when you get right down to it,” David Swenson, an economist with Iowa State University, said in an interview.
As with several other orders Trump has signed, Tuesday’s document doesn’t directly change administration policy. Rather, it asks agencies to come up with policy recommendations at a later time. The order gives the new task force 180 days to “identify legislative, regulatory, and policy changes to promote in rural America agriculture, economic development, job growth, infrastructure improvements, technological innovation, energy security, and quality of life.”
Obama’s rural council had a similar job. Obama’s order told the council, among other things, “to coordinate development of policy recommendations to promote economic prosperity and quality of life in rural America.”
A summary of Trump’s order said Obama’s rural council was “noble in purpose,” but too informal in practice. It also said, however, that the task force would consider whether the council structure was useful after all and should be brought back.
“They’re gonna study it just like the last administration studied it,” Swenson said.
The president’s order comes amid concerns from some farmers and agriculture experts that the Trump administration hasn’t been focused on farm policy and that Trump’s trade agenda could be bad for farmers, who sell a lot of crops for export. A Trump budget proposal earlier this year offered steep cuts for the Agriculture Department, which was the last executive branch agency to get a Cabinet secretary nomination, with Sonny Perdue getting sworn in earlier on Tuesday.
Johnathan Hladik, policy director at the Center for Rural Affairs, a rural advocacy group, said certain aspects of the executive order — especially its mention of technological innovation in rural America — are promising.
On the whole, however, Hladik feels the order will do little to alleviate his concerns with the massive cuts proposed for the USDA ― particularly when it comes to the zeroing-out of rural development initiatives like the agency’s microentrepreneur assistance program and value added producer grants in Trump’s budget proposal.
“To me, it sounds like they’ve ignored rural America for their first 95 days and started to get some flak, so on days 95 and 96 they’re doing these token gestures to show they’re ignoring [rural America] no longer,” Hladik told HuffPost.
The Farm Bureau, America’s largest agribusiness advocacy group, generally supports Trump and his efforts to undo regulations. But the liberal-leaning National Farmers Union was unenthusiastic Tuesday.
Rob Larew, senior vice president of government relations and communications at the NFU, dismissed the order as a “redressing” of previous administrations’ efforts to address rural concerns.
Larew’s group remains focused on how Perdue might push back against proposed cuts to his agency’s budget, and on farming-related policy decisions that have been made in the past weeks and months.
“Everything from immigration efforts to health care have huge implications from the rural and agriculture perspective,” Larew told HuffPost. “So what will [Perdue] do? There are lots of challenges on the horizon, some of which were created by this administration, so he has a lot of things to take care of very quickly.”