USDA's Vilsack Navigatin Washington's Political Waters
A Master Mariner can operate any vessel, regardless of size, power or geographic location. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is essentially
USDA's Master Mariner—in charge of every aspect of USDA. As he captains the sprawling agency that he says affects every U.S. citizen "every way, every day,” his abilities to navigate the political waters of Washington, D.C., are being tested.
In an exclusive interview in his expansive office overlooking the greening Capitol Mall in Washington at the end of April, Vilsack clarified his views on several policy matters.
Direct payments vs. nutrition. Early on, Vilsack pushed an Obama administration budget proposal that would have phased out direct payments to farmers with more than $500,000 in gross sales. The resulting savings would then be used for nutrition programs. When the proposal received a frosty reception, Vilsack said it was a choice between giving payments to wealthy farmers or providing food for hungry children—a characterization he later termed "inartful.”
Vilsack notes that President Barack Obama's priorities include a major increase in nutrition efforts and that they did recommend "several proposals relative to the way in which we currently create a safety net for farmers. We realized Congress wasn't going to say, ‘Gee, this is a great budget. Why don't we vote on it right now?' They're not going to rubber-stamp it, and they're going to come up with their own proposals. At the end of the day, they have the final say. We just wanted to make sure they understood how important the priority was that the President placed on making sure kids have nutritious food. I think they got that message.”
Team up on food safety. Vilsack initially backed the concept of a single food safety agency, but his stance appears to have shifted. President Obama has asked Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to head up a working group to look at the issue of food safety. One of the key areas to investigate: "Can we get a consistent philosophy in how we approach food inspection?” Vilsack asks. "I think it's also important to recognize that since we have 15 different agencies engaged in some aspect of food safety that we [need to] develop a method by which there is real-time communication of issues. When you have multiple agencies, you have the risk of creating confusion about what each agency knows, how each agency makes decisions and what decisions they make based on what they know.”
Getting the details right is paramount, Vilsack states. "If you don't get the philosophy right, and you don't get the authority right and the communication structures right, it won't make any difference what kind of system you've got—it's not going to work as well as it should.”
On with COOL. Implementing provisions in the 2008 farm bill for mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is another issue Vilsack has had to confront as USDA chief.
"I called the industry into my office and they advised me of the steps they were prepared to take with reference to the passage of the legislation,” he says. "Remember that our job is not to pass legislation but to implement it. It is to follow the intent of Congress. It isn't to make policy; it's to carry it out, which is what we're trying to do. We were assured by the industry that their intentions were very consistent with congressional intentions when Congress passed the COOL legislation. All we are looking for is a verification or an indication that is what in fact is happening.” He says that verification will be done by periodic checks on the industry.
A voice on climate change. In regard to the intensifying issue of climate change and plans for a cap-and-trade system to cut greenhouse gas emissions, farmers and ranchers are concerned agriculture may not be a player. Vilsack assures the industry that it will have a voice, noting that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has already sought his input on several topics. On climate change, Vilsack says, White House energy and environment czar Carol Browner "is absolutely intent on making sure that agriculture is at the table, that forestry is at the table.”
- Late Spring 2009