New Chief at USDA

January 31, 2009 01:54 PM

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack has a new title: USDA Secretary. His January confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee was an easy one, showcasing the abilities that helped him easily win two terms as governor.

While Vilsack's confirmation hearing was basically a "coronation," one lawmaker noted that with the panel's chairman (Tom Harkin) also hailing from Iowa, it puts the tall-corn state in a good position in the legislative and executive branches. The observation came from the panel's ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss (Ga.).

Vilsack said he would represent the interests of agriculture "in all parts of the country."

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) urged Vilsack not to forget about production agriculture despite three-quarters of the USDA budget focused on food and feeding programs. "There's been a lot of criticism of agriculture recently. There are some that want to change the mission of USDA [by making it] the Department of Food, Nutrition, Hunger," Roberts said. "Can you assure me that you will make commodities a top concern?"

Policy Briefs
Stocking the Cabinet. Many of the Cabinet choices in Barack Obama's administration enjoyed noncontroversial confirmation hearings. Since the withdrawal of Bill Richardson as the head of the Commerce Department, a replacement, as of mid-January, has yet to be announced. Some of the other Cabinet choices didn't have hearings on tap by the time Obama took the oath of office—which means he won't meet the pace set by George W. Bush, who had seven of his Cabinet officers in place when he took office.

Flurry of rules. USDA pumped out several rules in the waning days of the Bush Administration, including the mandatory country- of-origin labeling (COOL) program. While more flexibility was granted in its final version, some in the industry were irked that it was watered down too much. However, the changes were enough to get Canada to suspend its challenge of COOL under the World Trade Organization.

"Agriculture is a very complicated business and a very sophisticated business, and that sometimes is not realized," Vilsack said. "I do appreciate the diversity … of different kinds of agriculture."

The issue of payment limits, Vilsack said, will be high on his agenda. Chambliss and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) are holding out hope that Vilsack won't pursue payment limit rules that negatively impact their growers. "I'm not going to tell you today that there might not be a disagreement from time to time, but if there is, I will be available to talk," Vilsack said. "I honestly don't know as much as I need to know or as much as you know about this issue."

One of the key friction points that can emerge between Congress and an administration comes when implementing provisions of legislation. And with the 2008 farm bill still in the implementation phase, some lawmakers are hoping Vilsack will see things their way when it comes to making those decisions.

Vilsack said he will consult with the Ag Committee when working through farm bill implementation issues. "I know that it is important to the members of Congress that whatever compromises were made to reflect the diversity of agriculture … in that bill be carried out," Vilsack said. "I think it's important what we do is consistent with congressional intent."
Vilsack's political skills were put to the test when lawmakers asked what changes he would like to make in the farm bill. He said he had been
instructed only to praise the farm bill passed by Congress last year.

Biofuels backer. As governor, Vilsack was a strong backer of biofuels; as USDA Secretary that isn't going to change. "Moving toward next-generation biofuels, cellulosic ethanol, is going to be really important," Vilsack stated, referencing the impact on food prices that some have blamed corn-based ethanol for. "It's important for us to realize [biofuels] is not just corn and [it's] not just the Midwest that can benefit."

But Vilsack did acknowledge the industry is going through a difficult period in the wake of high corn prices in mid-2008. "Margins are very, very small, and frankly, you are going to have to be a very efficient manger over the next few years to do well," Vilsack said.

Further, Vilsack mentioned it could be difficult to meet the increasing mandates for ethanol use under the Renewable Fuels Standard. "I think USDA has a very, very important role in making sure we provide the research and the focus and direction to meet whatever the requirements are," he observed. "I look forward to doing what is right in terms of second- or third-generation biofuels."

Vilsack is a skilled politician who is capable of managing a sprawling bureaucracy like USDA. His admission of not knowing all the ins and outs of farm programs shouldn't be a worry. But it means that those under him at USDA will need to know those details well.

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