Who Will be the Next Secretary of Agriculture?

12:00AM Oct 06, 2008
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via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Congressional Quarterly lists some potential contenders

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Even before the Nov. 4 elections, the guessing game on who may fill the next president's Cabinet has begun, notably with respected Congressional Quarterly (CQ) taking a detailed look at all potential Cabinet positions in either a John McCain or Barack Obama administration.

The following is the list of the names presented in CQ Weekly for the next Agriculture Secretary, along with my comments:

For McCain

-- Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina, whose second term ends in 2010. He was not on the Agriculture Committee during his six years in the House, but he is governor of a farming-intensive state.

My comments: Governors have become popular picks for Ag Secretary, with the last two being Mike Johanns (Nebraska) and Ed Schafer (North Dakota). Sanford was listed as a potential candidate when Schafer was tapped to be Bush's Agriculture chief. It's been a while since southern producers had "one of their own" at the top spot for the business of agriculture.

-- Keith Collins, former long-time USDA chief economist and now a self-employed consultant.

My Comments: Until his recent warnings about going too far and too fast on the use of corn-based ethanol, Collins had few if any dissenters. In fact, he still really doesn't. In my over thirty years watching the agriculture, energy and trade policy areas in Washington, I have never seen a more fair minded and gifted economist willing to call it like it is. That is rare in Washington -- and elsewhere. He has been through a lot of tough farm bills and other issues -- enough to give him a lot of training in Beltway politics, but others say he still may lack that "political bone" needed for such a Cabinet position. Bottom line: he would excel at anything he does.

-- Randy Russell, partner at Lesher, Russell & Barron for over 20 years. Before that, he was chief of staff to Agriculture Secretary John Block during the writing of the 1985 farm bill. Before that, he spent a year as a deputy assistant USDA secretary for economics. He also has been a Senate Agriculture Committee economist and a lobbyist for both the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the Pillsbury Company.

My comments: The thing Washington needs so badly, bipartisanship and civility, Randy Russell has in abundance. House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) picked Russell and National Farmers Union President Tom Buis (see below) during the last Farm BIll debate to work out a country-of-origin labeling (COOL) consensus for meat and meat products. On the social front, Russell works hard in fighting global hunger. He is a very practical person in a not-so-pragmatic town. The CQ story has a good tag line for him: "Despite his special interest ties, he has few enemies in Washington, industry and farm groups say." Ditto.

For Obama

-- Charlie Stenholm, former top Democrat, House Agriculture Committee, now at one of the top agricultural lobbying firms — Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz. A founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition, whose pragmatic views on a host of agriculture and trade policy issues are needed in the years ahead. If you want a clear way to understand complex ag issues, his folksy ways are the way to go.

My comments: He is willing to listen to all sides of an issue. President Bush considered nominating him to run USDA in both 2000 and 2004. Animal-rights activists have opposed his lobbying efforts against a bill to limit the sale of horses for slaughter. He has a good understanding of southern and livestock industry policy issues, two areas where current policy and personnel are a bit lacking.

-- Marshall Matz, the McCain campaign’s top agriculture adviser and a nutrition expert whose name is part of the letterhead of Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz. While advising the Obama campaign, he is also shaping a platform for anti-hunger groups and food service managers in anticipation of a debate in Congress next year on rewriting the federal school lunch program. He spent five years as general counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and two years as special counsel to the Senate Agriculture Committee.

My Comments: Like so many on this list, he has friends on both sides of the political aisle. A very hard worker and a person able to communicate his passions. The CQ article says his background as a lobbyist could work against him,but I hope that silly litmus test ends when the elections are over. He's not a dirt farmer, but he knows how to deal with the mud-slinging ways of Washington.

-- Tom Buis, National Farmers Union president, who built up the group's Washington office when he ran its government relations office before being tapped to head the farm group in 2006. For half a decade, he was senior agriculture policy adviser to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Buis has on-farm experience as a grain and livestock farmer on his family’s Indiana farm.

My comments: He is the Democratic version of Randy Russell -- liked by all sides and very fair minded. But unlike Russell, his views are sharply Democratic. He was one of the early proponents of corn-based ethanol and renewable fuel in general, as was his former boss, Sen. Daschle.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.