Schafer wrapping up work in D.C.
WASHINGTON -- Outgoing Bush administration Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, a former governor of North Dakota, said Jan. 8 he is pleased that President-elect Obama has nominated another former farm state governor -- Democrat Tom Vilsack of Iowa ...
WASHINGTON -- Outgoing Bush administration Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, a former governor of North Dakota, said Jan. 8 he is pleased that President-elect Obama has nominated another former farm state governor -- Democrat Tom Vilsack of Iowa -- as ag secretary, but he spoke disparagingly about proposals to move USDA agencies and congressional efforts at reform.
At a final news conference, Schafer also an-nounced that he had signed the final rule on country-of-origin labeling for meat and poultry even though some groups said he should leave it for the Obama administration and that he had made or hopes to make several other big decisions before he leaves office.
Advice for Vilsack
Schafer told reporters he thinks governors bring "administrative capacity and management ability" to the job of Agriculture secretary. He also noted that he and Vilsack had been cofounders of the Governors' Biotechnology Partnership.
Schafer also said his advice to Vilsack would be to avoid the tendency to "put your own stamp" on the agency immediately and sit back and learn about USDA and its employees.
"I have grown to appreciate the capacity of USDA," Schafer said.
Proposals to move the U.S. Forest Service to the Interior Department and move the Food Safety and Inspection Service to the Food and Drug Administration, a division of the Health and Human Services Department, should be rejected Schafer said.
If the Forest Service, which was set up to manage lands used for the production of timber and wood, were moved to Interior, as some critics have proposed, the agency would become more immersed in wildlife, environmental and endangered species issues, Schafer said. It's important, he added, "to operate it in an appropriately productive manner."
Moves best not made
While a recent U.S. Institutes of Medicine report said the Food Safety and Inspection Service should move to the Food and Drug Administration, Schafer said the food division of FDA should be moved to USDA. Agriculture is "interested in good production methods," Schafer said, while FDA's "mentality comes from the drug side of things, which doesn't translate well into the food system." FDA is good at testing before a product reaches the market, Schafer said, but has shown that when a food product proves unsafe the agency doesn't know where the product comes from.
But Schafer, who had difficult relations with Congress after President Bush vetoed the farm bill and Congress overrode, saved his choicest words for Peterson's plans to reorganize the department to make it deliver services better.
"The problem is not at USDA. It's on the Hill," Schafer said.
Every time USDA proposes closing a USDA Farm Service Agency county office, the first people to complain are members of Congress, he noted. When Congress was unhappy with the way the Bush administration was going to institute a farm bill provision to stop payments to farmers with 10 acres of land or fewer, Congress passed a new bill to stop the plan and took the money for it out of a computer account. He also said it would have been easier to implement the new farm bill if it had been finished on time in 2007.
Schafer maintained that he understands "the differences and built-in tensions" between the executive and legislative branches, but added that members of Congress "tend to lay the blame on everybody but themselves."
Those comments led to questions once again about whether Schafer ever will run for the Senate seats of either Kent Conrad or Byron Dorgan, both North Dakota Democrats.
Schafer said no, adding, "For eight years, my answer has never changed."
Schafer said he plans to sleep late Jan. 21, his first day off the job, but that he and his wife, Nancy, will remain in their Washington apartment to enjoy the tourist sites they have not had time to see. They plan to return to North Dakota in the spring. Schafer said he has not been job hunting but that several opportunities have presented themselves.
In his last days as secretary, Schafer is enjoying a new government car. The government's lease on the agriculture secretary's official Lincoln ran out, and Schafer now is being driven in a Cadillac. Schafer said he likes the Cadillac but really thinks the agriculture secretary should be driven in a pickup.