USDA Shouldn't be Ag's Only Focus: Part 2

January 14, 2009 06:13 AM
While much of agriculture focuses in on who runs USDA, those at other agencies can be just as important -- sometimes more important -- relative to the fortunes of U.S. agriculture. That's going to be the case moving forward as U.S. energy and agriculture policy are intertwined and interlinked by biofuels. Trade has always been important to U.S. agriculture, and the global downturn is raising more concerns about the ability of foreign countries to continue as strong customers for U.S. ag products and on protectionist trade actions that history proves prolong -- not shorten -- times of economic downturn.
And, stocking the Obama administration's Cabinet has gone faster than any administration in recent history. But even that rapid clip of naming officials to top posts has hit a snag -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) withdrew from being the choice to become Commerce Secretary. He cited an investigation into a firm who won a state contract that had also made political donations as the reason for stepping away from the confirmation process. Richardson insists he has done nothing wrong, but didn't want the situation to detract from the Obama administration.
With Richardson stepping aside, the focus now shifts to who Obama will select to take the top post at the Commerce Department. The exit of Richardson leaves only two Hispanics on the Cabinet roll call, prompting some to signal that could be a key factor in replacing Richardson. But whomever ends up atop Commerce will be important for U.S. agriculture in areas like trade, energy and more.
Energy ‘czar': Carol Browner takes the post officially titled Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. In that role, Obama said she will coordinate energy and climate policy. "Carol understands that our efforts to create jobs, achieve energy security and combat climate change demand integration among different agencies; cooperation between federal, state and local governments; and partnership with the private sector," he stated. "She will be indispensable in implementing an ambitious and complex energy policy."
What to watch: U.S. agriculture interests won't likely welcome this appointment with open arms after her tenure at EPA. Even though she's not a in "cabinet" job, her work will be watched closely to see if it is pushing energy-related policies too far in any one direction.
Nomination status: No confirmation needed for post.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Lisa P. Jackson, most recently chief of staff for New Jersey Gov. John Corzine (D) and also previously commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. She formerly worked in the Clinton administration's EPA and is a native of New Orleans and would be the first African-American to lead the agency.
Key issues that impact U.S. agriculture: Air and water regulations have a direct impact along with being the key agency dealing with the Renewable Fuels Standard.
Who didn't get the position: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., head of the Water Keepers.
What to watch: Jackson isn't as extreme and worrisome for U.S. agriculture as Kennedy would have been. Still, she'll be watched closely for her stance on ag-related issues. But she did at least mention agriculture in her remarks accepting the nomination. "Now more than ever, our country is in need of leadership on a host of urgent environmental challenges that face our communities, our cities, our farms, and our rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. At the top of the list is the threat of climate change, which requires us to transform how we produce and use energy throughout the economy," Jackson said. But that issue of climate change is one that holds potential promise but also potential peril for U.S. agriculture.
Nomination status: No confirmation hearing set.
U.S. Trade Representative (USTR):Ron Kirk, former mayor of Dallas, Texas. Kirk, Dallas's first African-American mayor, between 1995 and 2001, promoted Dallas on trips overseas and aggressively noted the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). So he's definitely a free- (or freer-) trade backer. Obama had earlier offered the USTR position to Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), but he wanted to remain in the House and was recently elected vice chairman of the House Democratic
Caucus. His concern: Trade would not be given much "weight" in the new administration.
Kirk said as mayor of Dallas he has seen the "benefits and costs" of trade and believes "trade can help us create jobs at home and encourage development abroad." He said he backs a "commitment to America's workers and environmental sustainability is not only consistent with a pro-trade agenda, but it's also necessary for its success."
What to watch: Kirk clearly has the pro-trade credentials that U.S. agriculture wants to see in any USTR. The key will be how far he pushes the worker and environmental issues relative to trade deals. And he will have to contend with a Labor Dept. pick that is not known as backing trade deals. Plus, the trade arena has become clouded by protectionist actions on the part of several countries and it will be key to see how Kirk will combat protectionist sentiments that are rising in this country.

Nomination status:
No confirmation hearing set.
Dept. of Transportation: Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a centrist Republican who held a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 1994 to 2002. He then moved to the powerful Appropriations Committee in 2002. He was a somewhat surprising choice given that he no longer held a spot on the House transportation panel. But his Illinois roots, support of infrastructure investment, and being a close friend of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) aligned things for his nomination.
In accepting the nomination, LaHood noted he understands "what good infrastructure and transportation means to communities, and understand it is the local folks who know best their transportation needs."
What to watch: LaHood's selection marks one of Obama's campaign pledges, that you would find Republicans in his cabinet. Besides serving on the transportation panel, LaHood also served on the House Ag Committee so he does know agriculture and agriculture policy. He would be an ally in the Cabinet for Vilsack at USDA. The importance placed on infrastructure projects in any economic stimulus plan raises the profile of this cabinet post.
Nomination status: No hearing set as of yet.
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