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John Block: Controversy is Good

By former USDA Secretary John R. Block

The headlines in the papers and on the evening highlights: “White House in Crisis” and “Conflicts Between Trump Appointees.” Yes – for anyone following the new President and Republican Congress’s effort to take control and move forward, it is a wild and crazy show.

However, let me say that it is not so uncommon. When I was selected by President Reagan as Secretary of Agriculture, I ended up right in the middle of a big battle with some members in the Reagan Cabinet. We had our first Cabinet meeting in the Blair House before President Reagan was inaugurated. Defense Secretary Weinberger gave a report on where we were on national security and where he felt President Reagan should lead. There were some other reports from Cabinet members.

Before closing, President Reagan asked if anyone had anything that we should review. I raised my hand and said that the Soviet grain embargo imposed by former President Jimmy Carter was devastating our farmers and the embargo should be lifted.  The Soviet Union had been a huge market for our grain. Secretary of State Alexander Haig jumped on me, declaring that the embargo should not be lifted until we get something in return. Defense Secretary Weinberger was even more adamant. I didn’t seem to have any support.

Haig and Weinberger continued to make their case with the press. I was supporting the farmers and they wanted the embargo lifted. Our Cabinet dispute was in all the papers and the press. I think President Reagan wanted to stand back and let the disagreement rage. After the President was shot, he came back to the White House and lifted the grain embargo.

That was just the first example of the President allowing a clash of ideas in his Cabinet. The President would hold Cabinet meetings at least every other week.  Different Cabinet members were asked to make presentations on national issues. In 1984, I was asked to present my proposal for the farm program scheduled to be passed in 1985. It was well received, but the Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman attacked my proposal to establish a Conservation Reserve Program. It was stripped out of the farm bill. Two or three months later, I was able to get it back into the bill.

It is pretty obvious that President Trump’s leadership team does not agree on everything. That can be a good thing. I hope that President Trump will hold regular Cabinet meetings. Most Administrations since President Reagan have not. A closed mind with no discussion will not work. Washington writer George Will said President Obama “never learned anything from anyone with whom he disagreed.” I say delegate, listen, and learn.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.  If you would like to review his radio shows going back more than 20 years, visit

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