Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small fielded questions Wednesday from members of a bipartisan Senate Panel weighing her nomination to be the next Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.
During the hour-long hearing in Washington D.C., Torres Small, who currently holds a sub-cabinet position within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as Undersecretary of Rural Economic Development, was grilled about her vision for the department by members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition.
In February, President Joe Biden tapped Torres Small, a 38-year-old Las Cruces native, to replace Dr. Jewel Harrison Bough as deputy secretary.
If confirmed, Torres Small, 38, would be the second-highest ranking member at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, behind only Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In that capacity, she would play a central role in steering a Department of roughly 100,000 employees in 29 agencies at offices in 4,500 locations across the nation and around the world.
No vote was taken during the committee meeting, but senators from both parties spoke highly of her experience.
As undersecretary of Rural and Economic Development, Torres Small has been charged with overseeing and administering the Department's large portfolio of grant and loan programs, for everything from agriculture production and conservation, to rural schools, housing, economic development and infrastructure upgrades.
“I think it's very clear that there is strong bipartisan support for moving you forward to this new opportunity of leadership,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the committee, said to Torres Small during the hearing.
Other members, in turn, spoke favorably about Torres Small's demeanor, while thanking her for accompanying them on visits to their respective states and troubleshooting issues they raised to other agencies within the department for resolution.
"You can tell your love of rural America, just shows through," Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said.
In her testimony, Torres Small cited her history growing up on the Borderlands of New Mexico as the daughter of educators in a rural area and the granddaughter of farm workers. She also spoke of a desire to bridge gaps such as those between rural and urban constituents, and weighing differing viewpoints.
"Common ground is what grounds my work. If we don't agree on nine things, then I'm hopeful we can agree on a tenth thing that we do agree on and work with that. That's why I feel that I am the right person for the job," Torres Small told the committee.
She described the deputy position as a combination of manager and departmental ambassador, representing the USDA before the public, Congress and other agencies.
Sen. John Bozeman (R-AR), the top Republican on the committee, said Torres Small will have her work cut out for her. Though he insisted he does not blame her specifically, Bozeman voiced frustration with what he said is the USDA's inability or unwillingness to provide a detailed account of some of its spending of COVID-19 relief dollars.
He also raised the issue of how difficult it is for rural constituents to access USDA programs through a cumbersome application process.
"Regardless of agency, employer and location, our farmers, ranchers, schools, food banks, rural communities, organizations and individuals who work with USDA deserve to have clarity and certainty at the end of every interaction with you," Bozeman said.
He added that a culture of transparency, accountability and responsibility needs to be fostered at the USDA.
Torres Small agreed, saying ensuring good interaction with the public is crucial to USDA's mission.
“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 that back-end work that supports that,” she said.
Other members mentioned the overly complex process rural stakeholders must go through to receive loans, grants and other assistance.
Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) cited, as an example, the burdensome steps a county of fewer than 1,000 people and a USDA office had to wait months to receive a response for a community facilities grant and then had to advertise it three times.
"I don't think this is how our rural development programs should function. I really don't," Bennett said. He added that such processes need to be streamlined.
Torres Small said the long delays and advertising requirements were due to the bidding process that must take place for a project. But she conceded that in this instance, the process was too burdensome and that in some cases the process doesn't work given how hard it is in some rural areas to find an engineer for such a project.
When it comes to increasing the timely delivery of service and information, Torres Small explained much of that is about ensuring the proper tools and training are available.
“Having updated technology where...you don't have to open six different programs to enter one thing. It's about making sure we have ways to simplify our processes, whether it's how we get an engineering report so that it's a little simpler, or we're removing match requirements so that folks can better qualify for our programs,” she explained.
Torres Small was also asked what can be done to ensure a smooth transition, if confirmed, both to her new position and in handing stewardship of Rural Economic Development over to her successor.
She pointed to what she did in 2021, when she took over at Rural Economic Development, saying she prioritized meetings and interactions with employees at all USDA offices.
"It was really important for me to listen to them and have those meetings. We put together an executive report called Team RED that identified some of the challenges folks are facing including continuity in the hiring process, outdated technology and identified priorities on how we can best address them," she said.
USDA is also beset by challenges in filling open positions and a large round of retirements expected in the near future. At Rural and Economic Development, Torres Small noted 38% of its workforce is expected to retire in the next five years.
“This is a very key moment where we have to identify how we are recruiting and hiring the best of the best. How we are making sure we are training, that we are leveraging that incredible experience that is still at Rural Development,” she said.
Other members pressed Torres Small about regulations, such as a new rule by the Biden administration on what wetlands and bodies of water are subject to the Clean Water Act. Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) said many agriculture producers do not view it favorably, believing interpretations of that and other regulations change too often and restrict how producers can manage their land.
"They think it's an example of government being overly burdensome," he said.
Torres Small responded that as a field representative to former New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, she would hear such concerns all the time.
"That question of consistency, about going back and forth. I truly understand because it's not just the rule itself, but it's about is there a rule that (we) can settle (on), that folks can find some peace with that everyone can agree on," she said.
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