Vilsack confirmed as ag secretary

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic Iowa governor, as agriculture secretary Jan. 20, only hours after Barack Obama was sworn in as president and Joe Biden sworn in as vice president of the United States.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic Iowa governor, as agriculture secretary Jan. 20, only hours after Barack Obama was sworn in as president and Joe Biden sworn in as vice president of the United States.

Vilsack was confirmed unanimously along with two other Cabinet officials who are likely to have a big impact on rural America: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a senator from Colorado, and Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning California professor, as energy secretary.

During the period leading up to his confirmation, Vilsack became known mostly for his support of biotechnology, with anti-biotech critics calling him the secretary from Monsanto. But others who have worked with him say Vilsack has a broader view of agriculture. Denise O'Brien, an Iowa food and small farm activist and 2006 candidate for Iowa agriculture secretary, said in an e-mail to her left-minded friends in agriculture that as governor Vilsack proved to be someone progressives "can work with" because of his support for local food production and consumption.

Under review

Shortly after Obama was sworn in at noon Jan. 20, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel issued a memo that all the rules the Bush administration put forward during the last days of the administration would be reviewed. They include the rule on mandatory country-of-origin labeling and rules for several conservation programs. Meeting with reporters, Vilsack promised to follow through on the review of the rules, but declined to discuss the details.


At the news conference, Vilsack also said he was thrilled to be sworn in by Biden because a Biden statement had inspired him to go into politics. Vilsack recalled Biden saying, "The penalty for not getting involved is people less qualified than you end up governing."

Vilsack said Obama has stressed to him that USDA should provide more nutritious food to children, but that he also was "quite adamant" that USDA should help increase the supply of alterative fuel and energy. Vilsack said the agriculture department was "in some sense the first Department of Energy" because it provides fuel for people's bodies and that he wants to "extend" that role to encouraging other forms of energy.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said Obama "could not have made a better selection." Vilsack's confirmation, Obama said, "signifies new leadership for the USDA, but also a new focus on the issues important to all Americans, including nutrition, conservation, energy and promoting the rural economy."

Building his team

Vilsack's deputy secretary, undersecretaries and low-level appointments have not been named. But Vilsack has appointed John Norris, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman and Iowa Utilities Board chairman, as his chief staff and Carole Jett, a former high-ranking Natural Resources Conservation Service official, as deputy chief of staff.

Vilsack also appointed David Lazarus, a former aide to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., as his special assistant. Lazarus worked on the Obama campaign and it is likely to be his job to make sure that White House and USDA policies are consistent.

Meanwhile, a member of the House Agriculture Committee and a key Senate aide said they think Chuck Hassebrook is a top candidate for deputy secretary. But Hill sources said a Hassebrook nomination would be highly controversial and might not make it out of the Senate Agriculture Committee because he has been such a strong critic of farm programs. Hassebrook is an advocate of strict farm program payment limits and favors more spending on nonagricultural rural development. Vilsack urged members of Congress to vote against the 2008 farm bill.

Another negative for Hassebrook is that he had a poor relationship with Tom Daschle, the former South Dakota senator who now is designated to be Health and Human Services secretary. Pete Rouse, a former Daschle top aide, is now a high-ranking official in the Obama White House.


Other candidates for deputy secretary are Karen Ross, president of the California Winegrape Growers Association and executive director of the Winegrape Growers of America, and Jim Miller, chief of staff and chief economist at the National Farmers Union who was a top aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., during the 2008 farm bill. Before working in Washington, Miller farmed in eastern Washington and was president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Lobbyists, agribusiness executives and some visiting farmers were attending inaugural parties at which people speculated about lower level appointments in the Obama administration.

Ag ball

For decades, agricultural lobbyists of all types have banded together to throw a pre-inauguration party affectionately known as the Ag Ball, the Farm Prom, or the Piggy Party. But this time around, there was no unity as some aggies were furious about the price of the tickets and how the event was handled. Instead, they decided to hold a much smaller party Jan. 19 organized by the National Farmers Union, the farm group closest to Obama.

The two parties came about after the firm organizing the Ag Ball decided to charge $750 person and demand that each farm and agribusiness group that wanted to participate had to buy a table of 10 at $7,500. National Farmers Union President Tom Buis said, "No way," and began organizing his own party at Founding Farmers, a restaurant owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union.

Buis was the only farm leader willing to go on the record, but a commodity lobbyist said he and his staff would not attend the big event because his board had told him $750 per person was out of line. What started out as "the people's ball has been ruined," the lobbyist said.

The $750-per-person ball went off as scheduled, but it was billed as a bipartisan celebration and a lot of the attendees were Republicans.

Lazarus, the Obama aide who later was named special assistant to Vilsack, showed up at the Farmers Union party on crutches. He said he had broken his leg playing basketball, though not in one of Obama's pickup games, but he still was the most popular man at the party, particularly with the many jobseekers.


Vilsack did not attend either the Farmers Union party or the ag ball.

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