USDA’s Vilsack Navigating Washington’s Political and Policy Waters

May 14, 2009 07:00 PM

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.”

Vilsack cites figures from the group 25x'25 (their goal is to get 25% of U.S. energy from renewable resources, such as wind, solar and biofuels, by the year 2025) that indicate agriculture "may be 7% to 10% of the problem relative to greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide, methane and, much less so, carbon) but 20% to 25% of the solution.”

Vilsack says the administration hopes "when they establish a cap-and-trade system they will create some kind of offset program, and, as part of that program, agriculture and forestry are central and key to it—that people are essentially paid to do something they might not otherwise do, much the same way they are currently paid for conservation programs.”

Despite challenging issues, Vilsack remains optimistic as head of USDA. "The department is a phenomenal place,” he glows. "There is great potential in terms of impacting every single American's life every day with what we do at USDA.”

Rep. Frank Lucas' Oklahoma Roots Are Strong

Take an Okie farmer, put him in Congress for 15 years and you have the new ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee—Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). We sat down with him as Congress was poised to work on climate change issues and more.

A cap-and-trade system—or cap-and-tax, as Lucas calls it—will hit agriculture "with intensity,” he warns. "Ultimately, the consumer will pay more, which will cause consumers to buy less or to purchase lower-value products, and that will drive the effect back down the line.

Lucas also worries about the potential for exemptions for some industries under a cap-and-trade approach. "If there are exemptions and they have to pick between milk cows in Minnesota or Vermont or wherever and municipal sewer systems, I have a feeling who is going to win,” he says. "That will put the extra costs, as an example, on producers.” When producers get a clear view of the impacts, Lucas predicts, "you'll see ag groups come alive with intensity.”

When it comes to the 2008 farm bill, Lucas proudly notes his vote in favor of the bill. He's eager to work with the new team at USDA once they are all in place. However, like his constituents, he chafes at USDA's plan to use the Internal Revenue Service to help verify farmer incomes since that was specifically addressed in the 2008 bill.

Contemplating his views on national and international issues, Lucas ties things back to his congressional district in northwest Oklahoma. "I was probably 20
before I knew you could have a prayer that didn't involve a request for rain—it's just the nature of our agriculture,” he quips. No wonder that down-home view has helped to shape Lucas into an effective voice for U.S. agriculture.

Policy Briefs
CRP extensions. USDA will offer three- or five-year extensions to 1.5 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program contracts that mature on Sept. 30, 2009.

EPA wants input. The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public comment on the request to boost the ethanol percentage in the fuel supply to up to 15%. Decision deadline: Dec. 1, 2009.

ACRE sign-up extension. You have until Aug. 14, 2009, to enroll in the Average Crop Revenue Election program.


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