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Corporate Agribusiness Applauds Obama's Appointment of Vilsack as USDA Head

Recall that last month, on November 23rd, Philip Brasher reported at The Des Moines Register Online that, "Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack today 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."

Mr. Brasher, in his article from last month, added that, "Vilsack had been linked repeatedly to the Agriculture Department position in news reports. The Washington Post at one point called him a 'near shoo-in' for the job. Obama's staff had never confirmed that he was being considered."

And, the Register article noted that, "Vilsack campaigned for Obama in several states and promoted his agricultural views in contacts with farm leaders. He published newspaper essays in October offering renewable energy plans that paralleled Obama's. The articles helped fuel speculation about the former governor's possible role in the Obama administration.

"USDA plays a role in many facets of Iowa's economy. The state is often the largest recipient of crop subsidies, collecting up to $2.3 billion in some years, and is home to much of the crop insurance industry, which also is heavily supported with taxpayer money."

Then, on December 10th, DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported at the DTN Ag Policy Blog that, "Just 11 short months ago, Iowa Democrats helped vault Barack Obama to his current title of President-elect, but Iowa's leading Democratic statesman - and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee - isn't being asked for advice by Obama's advisors on agriculture or who should be the next agriculture secretary.

"Sen. Tom Harkin said Wednesday he hasn't received any phone calls from Obama's transition team about agricultural issues. 'Not even once,' Harkin said, adding 'not one call.' Harkin said he thought this was odd until he checked with other senators on other committees and found out they had not been contacted about secretary appointments tied to their areas of purview either.

"'Quite frankly, this is disturbing,' Harkin said in a conference call with Iowa reporters."

Mr. Clayton also explained that, "Harkin later said he talked to at least one Obama advisor as well and had specifically recommended former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for agriculture secretary. Vilsack said last month he did not think he was being considered for any cabinet positions because he not been contacted by anyone from the transition team."

Despite the narrow prospects that former Gov. Vilsack faced as potential Cabinet member in late November, it appears that in the end, the Obama transition may have listened to Chairman Harkin after all.

Philip Rucker and Dan Morgan reported in today's Washington Post that, "Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a strong proponent of ethanol who made a brief bid for the presidency in 2007, will be named today as President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for agriculture secretary, a senior Democratic official said.

"Obama is expected to announce Vilsack and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), his pick for interior secretary, at a news conference in Chicago, as he races to round out his Cabinet before a Christmas vacation. Vilsack, 58, will lead a sprawling federal bureaucracy charged with overseeing farm subsidies, land conservation, food safety and hunger programs.

"Both environmentalists and food industry leaders reacted positively to the choice of Vilsack, a political centrist."

The Post article noted that, "Left as an infant at a Roman Catholic orphanage, Vilsack was raised by his adoptive parents in Pittsburgh. He settled in his wife's home town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and was elected governor in 1998, serving two four-year terms.

"On the often controversial issue of farm subsidies, 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."

Jeff Zeleny and David M. Herszenhorn reported in today's New York Times that, "Mr. Vilsack's nomination comes at a time of extraordinary tumult for the American agricultural industry, which not only has been battered by the recession, but is also increasingly entangled in the contentious debate over energy policy. The Agriculture Department is also contending with a sharp increase in the demand for food assistance in the wake of the economic turmoil.

"Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack are regarded as staunch advocates of ethanol and other bio-fuels as a way to reduce the nation's reliance on foreign oil. And Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress are working on a major economic stimulus package, in which they intend to promote the creation of thousands of new jobs tied to 'green energy' industries, including the production of solar and wind energy.

"One of the first major decisions Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack may have to make is whether to grant the ethanol industry's requests for billions in federal aid in the stimulus bill, which Mr. Obama has said he hopes to sign into law quickly, perhaps on his first day in office."

The Times article added that, "Mr. Vilsack, 58, sought the presidential nomination for about three months, dropping out shortly after Mr. Obama entered the race. At the time, Mr. Vilsack criticized the campaign as a process that rewarded intense fund-raising over innovative ideas. He endorsed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and served as a co-chairman of her campaign, often criticizing Mr. Obama as lacking experience for the job.

"But during the general election, Mr. Vilsack energetically campaigned for Mr. Obama, promoting their common ideas on renewable energy and rural growth. Late last month, Mr. Vilsack told friends he did not believe he would be selected because he had not been interviewed, but Democrats familiar with the process said the two men got along well during a recent meeting in Chicago.

"Mr. Vilsack, like the president-elect, is a strong advocate of combating global warming and developing alternative sources of 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.

"'Let us build a 21st-century rural economy of cutting-edge companies and technologies that lead us to energy and food security,' Mr. Vilsack wrote in one of several op-ed articles he had published during the campaign. 'Such an investment will revitalize rural America, re-establish our moral leadership on climate security and eliminate our addiction to foreign oil.'"

And near the conclusion of today's article, the Times writers stated that, "Mr. Vilsack, a native of Pittsburgh, moved to Iowa to live in the hometown of his college-sweetheart-turned-wife, Christie Vilsack. His career in politics was unexpectedly born in 1986 when a disgruntled resident of Mount Pleasant barged into a City Council meeting and killed the mayor.

"Mr. Vilsack stepped in to serve as mayor. He later ran for the State Senate and in 1998 was elected governor in a campaign that even his closest friends did not believe he could win.

"Mr. Vilsack, who has spent the fall semester as a political fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, works as a lawyer in Des Moines. Four years ago, he was among those who were considered to be a running mate for Senator John Kerry.

"Mr. Vilsack was not on the short list of candidates to join Mr. Obama's ticket.

"Experts said Mr. Vilsack's experience as governor of a major corn-producing state makes him intimately familiar with many of the issues, but it also raises questions about whether he will be partial to growers of the crop that his state is known for."

John McCormick and Mike Dorning reported in today's Los Angeles Times that, "Vilsack would be the fourth high-level appointment of a former presidential campaign rival to Obama's team, following Clinton for secretary of State, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden for vice president and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for Commerce secretary.

"'He knows production agriculture, and he knows the changes we need to ensure its profitability and future, including for young and beginning farmers and ranchers,' Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement.

"Iowa's Republican senator also endorsed the selection.

"'He has a firsthand look at the role of agriculture in our global economy,' Sen. Charles E. Grassley said in a statement . 'I'm happy for him, happy for Iowa, and this is welcome news for agriculture.'"

[Note: Mr. Grassley also noted in the statement that, "This comes as a surprise since about three weeks ago Governor Vilsack stated that he was not in contention for the job."]

Today's L.A. Times article indicated that, "While running for president, he took an unusual position for a farm-state official, arguing to cut subsidies for agricultural commodity crops and channel the money toward improving environmental practices."

Robynn Tysver and Leslie Reed reported in today's Omaha World Herald that, "U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who lobbied hard on behalf of Vilsack, said he was extremely pleased with Obama's pick."

The article stated that, "The nomination caught some off-guard, because Vilsack appeared to take himself out of the running a few weeks ago."

And, the World Herald writers added that, "Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., voiced strong support for his fellow former governor, describing him as someone who 'won't need a lot of on-the-job training.'

"'Vilsack knows agriculture from the field to the fork to the future of improving America's energy security with biofuels,' Nelson said. 'He understands the issues, the industry and how to get results.'"

Bloomberg writers Julianna Goldman and Kim Chipman reported yesterday that, "He [Vilsack] would bring to the Department of Agriculture experience as the former chief executive of a state heavily reliant on agriculture and related industries. Iowa ranks third in the U.S. in the value of agricultural products sold and is one of the nation's top producers of corn, soybeans, hogs and eggs, according to government statistics.

"The Agriculture secretary oversees the fourth-largest Cabinet agency, with a budget of about $100 billion and 110,000 employees."

And Philip Brasher, writing yesterday at The Des Moines Register Online, reported that, "Iowa has long been the giant of U.S. agriculture, not just in producing grain and livestock but also in collecting federal crop subsidies.

"Now with Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary, the state will have one of its own at the helm of the department that dispenses those subsidies, controls nearly 2 million acres of Iowa land through a single conservation program and regulates the state's many meatpackers.

"The Obama administration, meanwhile, will get an agriculture secretary who's sympathetic to big agribusiness that dominates Iowa and a believer in biofuels and agricultural biotechnology.

"In short, Vilsack is not likely to shift the U.S. Agriculture Department in the radical new direction as many of Obama's liberal supporters had hoped. A New York Times columnist called for renaming USDA the Department of Food. One online petition drive, called fooddemocracynow.org , pushed reform candidates like Neil Hamilton, an agricultural law expert at Drake University. Vilsack was not on the list."

Mr. Brasher added that, "Vilsack's views are closely aligned with President-elect Barack Obama's, said Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. Obama supported the 2008 farm bill, but like Iowa's farmers, favors tightening subsidy limits for large farms, a move that would hurt larger operations in the South."

 

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