Backgrounder on Former Iowa Gov. Vilsack

Published on: 12:29PM Dec 17, 2008
By Jim Wiesemeyer

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

A look at Vilsack from his own words

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

-- Background, from Vilsack's comments.... "Vilsack is the name of my adoptive parents. I've never known the name of my birth mother or father. I was born in Pittsburgh, but I don't really know much more than that. You see, a few moments after I was born, my birth mother handed me over to nuns in an orphanage. Other people might talk about 'No Child Left Behind,' but I was that child left behind."

-- Background, from CBS News: "He was left as an infant at a Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh and adopted by what he has described as a "troubled but loving family." His parents were well-to-do and sent him to a private preparatory school, but his mother was an alcoholic who beat him and his father suffered trying financial reversals. Vilsack managed to transcend his difficult childhood to build a successful career in law and politics, serving as a mayor, state senator and two terms as Iowa governor."

-- On early reports he would be Obama's choice for USDA Secretary: The Nov. 24, 2008, edition of the Des Moines Register, reported the following: "Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack on Sunday said that he won't be the next agriculture secretary, ending speculation that an Iowan would snag the post important to a large swath of the state's economy. In an e-mail, Vilsack said he had never been contacted by aides to President-elect Barack Obama about that position or any other. "I would have to speculate that I was in fact in the running and further speculate as to why I was no longer. I do not think it prudent or appropriate to speculate about either," Vilsack said.

-- Vilsack on budgets and budget deficits: "Disclosing earmarks and passing toothless budget resolutions isn't real change; it's staying the course. Taking the tough steps needed to actually balance the budget is real change. That's what Bill Clinton did. And that's what we did in Iowa - for eight years in a row, including during the Bush recession."

-- Ban on packer ownership of livestock: In a conversation with John Crabtree, Vilsack said, "I agree with President-elect Obama's support for the provision in the farm bill that would have prohibited packers from owning livestock - support that he expressed both during the farm bill debate and his campaign. And I agree with Senator Harkin and Senator Grassley who, along with a number of other Senators from farm and ranch states, have been ardent supporters of ending this kind of direct vertical integration by prohibiting packer ownership of livestock."

-- Biotechnology: The Biotechnology Industry Organization, once named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He was also the founder and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership.

-- As governor of Iowa, Vilsack carved out a reputation as a centrist balancing his state's budget and refusing to raise taxes, while emphasizing increased spending on such priorities as education, health care and higher wages. He previously chaired the Democratic Leadership Council, the party's signature centrist group.

-- Energy security: When he ran for president, Vilsack initially made the focus of his campaign a plan to end U.S dependence on foreign oil by promoting alternative energy sources. "Energy security will revitalize rural America, re-establish our moral leadership on global warming and climate security, and eliminate our addiction to foreign oil," Vilsack, a prominent proponent of ethanol, biodiesel and wind power, said at the time. Six new power plants were built in the state of iowa during Vilsack's tenure

-- Vilsack on renewable fuels: "Paying lip service to the need for renewable fuels isn't real change. unless you're a lifelong apologist for the oil industry. Providing the incentives, leadership, and backbone to actually build production plants when most people say it can't be done. that's real change. But that's what we did in Iowa, and as a result, not only are we number one in ethanol production, which may not seem like a surprise, but we're also number one in biodiesel production and number three in wind energy."

He was the co-chairman of a task force last year on climate change for the Council on Foreign Relations, which recommended phasing out subsidies for mature biofuels, including corn-based ethanol, as well as reducing tariffs on imported biofuels like Brazilian sugar ethanol.

Vilsack made the following comments to The Mac Weekly in a recent interview: The question asked by Zac Farber, Managing Editor, was: "You've said in the past that you support efforts to transition from corn ethanol to more efficient, environmentally friendly cellulosic ethanol. In the mean time do you still support subsidizing corn ethanol?" Vilsack's response:

"The current system is built on subsidies that are being provided and people have made investments based on relying on those subsidies, but it is also clear that there simply will not be enough corn even if we continue to increase productivity of the corn crop. There isn't going to be enough corn to produce the kind of demand that we're going to have for ethanol. So you've got to transition away from corn for cellulosic ethanol, and that's wood chips, that's waste, that's grasses, that's crop residue, it's a series of things that currently have little value but could-if we do it right-have significant value and can help produce a series of jobs, which this economy clearly needs. So as the research gets us to the point where we can produce cellulosic ethanol efficiently and in a cost effective way, what we're going to see is a shifting of those subsidies and that assistance [to cellulosic ethanol]. And then overtime, as that industry matures, there will be a need for ratcheting down the subsidies because the market will take over and there will be an opportunity for additional profits from the market the way it ought to be."

Farber then asked Vilsack, "So what do you see as the opponents to corn ethanol subsidies' main points?" His response:

" Well, there are several. First, it's expensive. Roughly 50, 54 cents a gallon of federal tax credits-there are questions about that. No. 2: Combined with the tariff that we currently assess on sugarcane-produced ethanol in places such as Brazil, it really creates a playing field that, in the eyes of the critics, is not level. No. 3: There are people who contend that supporting corn-based ethanol is creating a situation where food prices in this country and across the globe are increasing. Now, I take issue with that; it may very well be a factor but it is by no means the most important factor, and there are a multitude of other factors that are more significant in terms of rising food costs-No.1: the cost of oil and the cost of energy to put the crop in and to harvest the crop and to fertilize it, all of which is petroleum based. And then finally, there is the issue of whether or not corn-based ethanol is adding to or subtracting from the greenhouse gasses that would otherwise be put into the atmosphere if you continued to use petroleum-based fuel.

"There are two main sources of greenhouse gasses from an industrial standpoint: power companies and how they produce the electricity that lights the buildings and our transportation system, and then you have some heavy users of industry that are kind of the third component-commercial and residential not so much. So if you are going to be controlling greenhouse gasses, you have to do something on the transportation side and you have to do something on the power side. Corn-based ethanol is a plus in terms of not being a fossil fuel, of being a renewable fuel and so forth, on the one hand. On the other hand when you use a lot of energy to produce corn-based ethanol, people will come in and say, "You're using a lot of energy to produce a small amount [of energy]."

-- Support for cap and trade system to regulate carbon dioxide emissions: Vilsack has written a series of op-ed articles that echo Obama's position on the need for a cap-and-trade system to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. “By locking up carbon through clean technologies and generating less carbon through renewable energy sources, we create home-grown carbon credits direct from the family farm,” Vilsack wrote in an Oct. 16 column in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Carbon credits then could be sold on the open market “just as if they were soybeans or lean hogs,” generating “a new revenue stream and creating a new ‘cash crop’ that just happens to help save the planet at the same time,” he added.

-- Vilsack on farm policy: Vilsack has taken a moderate position, siding at times with those favoring a shift of funding in the agriculture budget from traditional subsidies to new kinds of supports for farmers that improve soil and water management. "I didn't get much of a reaction from farmers because deep down most of them know the system needs to be changed," Vilsack said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. Obama supports a $250,000 a year "hard" cap on farm payments and stricter rules on who qualifies as a farmer.

-- Extended comments on what Vilsack thinks the next Agriculture secretary's next priorities should be, as told to The Mac Weekly and written by Zac Farber, Managing Editor:

" Well, I will tell you that it's a department that impacts every American. Where do you start? You have an international food crisis. Sen. Obama has talked about the use of soft power, and that would be an opportunity to address in a significant way a new day in America, a new approach.

"You've got renewable energy, which the secretary of energy obviously is going to be involved in, but the secretary of agriculture is also going to be involved in it. How do you accelerate the research and development that gets you to second-generation bio-fuels?

"You have the reauthorization of the school nutrition program. You have to be focused on whether we are doing right by our children in schools across America in terms of nutritious food that we subsidize and we provide in school lunch programs.

"There is the issue of the forest system in the country. Most people don't realize this, but the Department of Agriculture has authority over the forest service. So you have all these wildfires. Why do you have wildfires? I would argue that climate change is one of the reasons. You've got people building these multimillion dollar houses in and around the forests because it's a really great place to look at. So what do you do to protect the homes and at the same time make sure the forests are reforested and we continue to have this wonderful asset? And, how do you incorporate all of that into an energy plan because you realize that trees are absorbers of carbon and crops are absorbers of carbon and you've got to create opportunity here for offsets and carbon sinks. So are we doing what we need to do in terms of adequate budgets for the forest service. Is it right to take the forest fire fighting expense out of the general operating budget of the forest service, and when you do, that means you have substantially less money for conservation, for watershed protection, for replanting the forest, for creating strips, buffer areas, around these highly populated and highly expensive homes that are being built.

"There is an issue of food security and food safety. We have an odd system in America. The USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] basically takes a look at meat, poultry and fish, I think, in terms of protecting it-the safety and security of it-but you have the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, providing safety and security of every other type of food product. Well, is there overlap? Is there inconsistency in the way these folks inspect plants and facilities? Should there be some coordination? Should there be some consolidation? So that's an issue that will have to be addressed.

"So there are a lot of issues that that department must deal with, and they're really important because everybody's got to eat."

-- Vilsack on health care: "Giving people tax deductions to purchase health insurance isn't real change; it's the status quo. Guaranteeing every American access to quality, affordable health care. and creating a system whose primary goal is the prevention of illness and disease. is real change. That's what we did in Iowa when we were one of only two states to reduce the number of uninsured. And that's what we'll do in America."

-- Record of changing Iowa from "red to blue": "You know, people talk a lot about red states and blue states. But what really matters is how we change red states to blue states. When I was elected in 1998, I became the first Democratic Governor of Iowa in 30 years. In 2002, I became the first Democratic Governor to be reelected in 38 years, and in 2006, we won the Iowa House, Senate, and Governorship for the first time in 42 years. I know how to change red to blue. I've done it...It all comes back to the courage to create change. We turned Iowa from red to blue because we had courage -- the courage to create change."

My comments: Early reports that Vilsack would be the USDA choice were correct and were likely too premature for the Obama crowd who definitely did not want to announce the USDA Secretary at that time. I never took him off my long potential list, unlike others who actually believed he would not get it after reading his email comments to the Des Moines Register. In fact at the time, I wondered whether the email message to the Des Moines Register was a diversionary tactic.

Critics charge that Vilsack is too much of a supporter of agricultural biotechnology and does not do enough for organic or sustainable farmers.

Vilsack will have to manage a large department at USDA, and will have to deal with growing calls for reforms in farm policy, including stricter caps on farm program payments, and a planned USDA reorganization push by House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.). And once the Obama administration and the Democratically controlled House and Senate begin focusing on the bulging budget deficits, Vilsack will very likely have to be the front person in selling cuts to the Agriculture budget, including farm program subsidy reductions.

Trade policy: It will be interesting to see how Vilsack conforms to the more reformist trade policy ideas of President-elect Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress.

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