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‘It Was An Incredible Experience’: U of I Professor Tapped By Biden Administration To Transition USDA

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Jonathan Coppess was one of hundreds of volunteers tapped by the Biden transition team.

URBANA – A University of Illinois professor helped the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) transition from the Trump to the new Biden-Harris administration.  

Jonathan Coppess is one of hundreds of people — including researchers, professors and scientists — who volunteered their time on the effort.

Coppess, an assistant professor within the U of I’s agriculture department, specializes in agricultural law and policy, natural resource conservation and biofuels. He previously served as the administrator of the Farm Service Agency — a branch of the USDA — under the Obama administration.

Now that the transition is complete, Illinois Newsroom’s Agriculture Reporter Dana Cronin spoke with Coppess to learn how it went. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dana Cronin: You were assigned to help transition the U.S. Department of Agriculture from one administration to the next. What exactly did that look like?

Jonathan Coppess: The transition effort itself is a huge undertaking, to move the entire executive branch of the federal government from one political leadership to another. It’s pretty standard, obviously, every four or eight years they go through it. The agency review process then is an undertaking of just getting the state of the agencies. So it is very mechanistic. It can be kind of boring sounding to a lot of people. You’re reviewing budgets and personnel ceilings and hiring and the state of play on regulations and basic operational issues. And the whole idea is that we do this work and then it’s handed off to the incoming political team that’s appointed by the new President. And we have handed off a variety of findings and recommendations and plans and those sorts of things.

DC: You know, the last few weeks of the Trump administration were anything but normal. We saw, you know, numerous cabinet officials stepped down in the aftermath of the capital insurrection. President Trump himself was impeached for inciting that insurrection. I wonder whether any of this impacted the work you were doing.

JC: The just, frankly, awful and unacceptable events around January 6th had no direct impact on transition because, unfortunately, they were they were pointed at Congress. But we were also virtual and not there on the ground. But I don’t think there’s any way that an event like that cannot impact all aspects of the federal government in some form or fashion. It is beyond unfortunate. It is a frightening episode, frankly, and a damaging episode for our system of government. And to have the President of the United States incite an insurrectionist mob against the Article One branch of Congress as it was trying to certify the election results is just, frankly, something we’ve never experienced in the history of our country.

DC: What are your thoughts on Biden’s pick of Tom Vilsack to lead the Department of Agriculture?

JC: He is a detail-oriented person who cares a lot about the mission of that department and its impact on, not just rural America and farming, but on the world at large and on our country. And he’s somebody that brings a lot of real experience but real passion and care for what goes on. So it’s one of those things where you know that the work that we did, that’s going to go into good hands and be put to use and put to productive and effective outcomes.

Dana is a reporter for Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHCronin

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Dana Cronin

Dana Cronin

Dana Cronin covers food and agriculture for Illinois Newsroom. Her work has reached both national and regional audiences through WILL's partnership with Harvest Public Media, an ag-focused Midwest reporting collaborative. Prior to Illinois Newsroom, she worked at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C. and for other member stations including KQED in San Francisco and 91.5 KRCC in Colorado Springs, CO. ➤ DCronin@illinois.edu@DanaHCronin

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