USDA Shouldn’t Be Ag’s Only Focus

January 31, 2009 01:48 PM

While agriculture primarily focuses on who runs USDA, people at other agencies are just as important—sometimes more important—relative to the fortunes of the industry. That is going to be the case moving forward as U.S. energy and agriculture policy are intertwined by biofuels. Trade has always been important to U.S. agriculture, and the global downturn is raising concerns about the ability of foreign countries to remain strong customers for U.S. ag products. History proves that protectionist trade actions prolong—not shorten—times of economic stress, which doesn't help the outlook.

The following are President Barack Obama's picks to head the agencies that influence U.S. agriculture. At press time, confirmation hearings were pending for some of the positions requiring that step in the appointment process.

Department of Energy
Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, is director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The son of Chinese immigrants, he has sponsored research on biofuels and solar energy. In making the choice, Obama said it "should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

  • Key issues that impact agriculture: U.S. energy policy, including biofuels.
  • Those who didn't get the position: Dan Reicher, who runs the energy and climate office for the philanthropic arm of Google; he served as assistant secretary of energy in Bill Clinton's administration. Carol Browner, who headed up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Clinton administration. She did land a spot in Obama's inner circle, however.
  • What to watch: Coming from academia, Chu is not well-known in policy circles. His views on alternative fuels and biofuels will be a key indicator for U.S. agriculture. When accepting the nomination, Chu didn't extensively comment on biofuels; he did mention that the U.S. needs to be going down a path "toward sustainable energy."

Energy Czar

Carol Browner takes the post officially titled Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. In that role, Obama said, Browner 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," Obama 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. Her work will be closely watched to see if it pushes energy policies too far in any one direction.

Lisa P. Jackson currently serves as chief of staff for New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine (D). Previously she worked as a commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and in the Clinton administration's EPA. She is a native of New Orleans and would be the first African-American to lead the agency.

  • Key issues that impact agriculture: Air and water regulations, along with being the key agency to deal with the Renewable Fuels Standard.
  • Who didn't get the position: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance.
  • What to watch: Jackson isn't as extreme and worrisome for U.S. agriculture as Kennedy would have been. Still, she will be closely watched for her stance on ag-related issues. 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.

The climate change issue is one that holds potential promise—and potential peril—for U.S. agriculture.

U.S. Trade Representative
Ron Kirk served as the first African-American mayor of Dallas, Texas, between 1995 and 2001. He promoted Dallas overseas and aggressively noted the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He definitely backs free (or freer) trade. Obama had earlier offered the 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 trade representative. The key will be how far he pushes the worker and environmental issues relative to trade deals. Kirk will have to contend with a Department of Labor pick who is not known to be proactive at backing trade deals. Plus, the trade arena has become clouded by protectionist actions on the part of several countries, and how Kirk will combat the protectionist sentiments that are already rising in this country.

Department of Labor
Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Natural Resources. Solis does not back free trade—she opposed the Central America Free Trade Agreement and helped garner Latino groups to oppose the pact, which passed by a two-vote margin.

In her remarks accepting the position, Solis did not link trade and employment. However, Obama did, noting his administration would make sure "that on both sides of the border, we end up having labor and environmental agreements that are enforceable so we don't have a race to the bottom, but instead the standards of living of all workers are raised."

  • What to watch: Solis' anti-trade stance is a red flag for U.S. agriculture. Expectations are that she will try to push strong labor-related provisions to be included in any trade deal negotiated. It will be interesting to see how these two views play out when it comes to key trade issues the next four years.

Department of Transportation
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) is 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 holds 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 that he understands "what good infrastructure and transportation means to communities" and that "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 agricultural policy. He would be a likely ally in the Cabinet for Tom Vilsack at USDA. The importance placed on infrastructure projects in any future economic stimulus plan will raise the profile and impact of this cabinet post.

Health and Human Services

Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has been selected to head up Health and Human Services. While the agency doesn't necessarily have a direct
impact on agriculture, Daschle will keep rural areas in mind as he works on health care reform issues for the Obama administration. Having someone this steeped in farm policy will be a plus for U.S. agriculture, and it will give Vilsack another "friend" in the Cabinet.

Market Regulators
Mary Schapiro will head the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has experienced criticism relative to market regulation—or the lack thereof. Schapiro knows the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), as she headed the regulator during the Clinton administration. To lead the CFTC during his presidency, Obama selected Gary Gensler, who served as Treasury Undersecretary from 1999 to 2001 and as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury from 1997 to 1999. Most recently he was a senior advisor to Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

  • What to watch: These two are experienced regulators who will find themselves at the center of efforts to bring more regulation of financial and commodity markets in Congress. Their views on whether the two agencies should be merged will likely be sought out during confirmation.

You can e-mail Roger Bernard at

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