The Senate on Tuesday voted 92-7 to confirm Vilsack as the nation’s Secretary of Agriculture, giving the former secretary and Iowa governor a chance to make good on pledges to address a wide variety of challenges from hundreds of different interest groups.
The overwhelming vote to confirm Vilsack indicated strong support for his return, but Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., along with six Republicans voted against him.
"American farmers, families, and rural communities need strong effective leadership now more than ever, and when it comes to strengthening our food and farm economy, I am very confident that soon-to-be-confirmed Secretary Tom Vilsack is more than up to the task," Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said on the Senate floor in advance of the vote Tuesday. "He has a proven track record and will embrace new ideas in a new era at the department."
Sen. John Boozman, the top Republican on the Senate Ag Committee, voiced his support for Vilsack’s nomination in a floor speech Tuesday that also highlighted the regional farm policy concerns that will face the new ag secretary.
“The Secretary must ensure that this administration works with producers of all regions and all commodities, and that the department does not make the hard work of farmers and ranchers more difficult by throwing up obstacles as opposed to opening doors of opportunity,” Boozman, R-Ark. said.
Vilsack first served in the position during nearly all eight years of the Obama administration; he was confirmed on Inauguration Day in 2009 and resigned one week before the 2017 inauguration.
As he acknowledged during his confirmation hearing, “the world and our nation are different today than when I served as Agriculture Secretary in a previous administration.” And many of the high priority issues are different under a Biden administration, too.
“The pandemic, racial justice and equity, and climate change must be our priorities,” Vilsack emphasized. “Amid these mounting challenges, we are tasked with delivering fundamental services — safe and nutritious food, clean water and last-mile broadband, energy security, sound infrastructure, and business services. In rural America — which holds a special claim to USDA’s mission — we must build back better, stronger, and more resilient and equitably than ever before.”
“We can confidently predict what Tom Vilsack’s leadership of the Agriculture Department will look like, because he’s led it before. And the prediction is grim,” noted Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch, in a statement. During his previous time at USDA, she accused him of backing “mass corporate consolidation of our food system at the expense of struggling family farmers.” She said the Biden administration should support “sustainable, independent farming, halting the toxic expansion of polluting factory farms, and ultimately prioritizing consumer health and worker safety.”
During his confirmation process, Vilsack pledged to tackle a number of tough issues. He was adamant that he would address any potential discriminatory practices by USDA, telling the Senate Ag Committee during his confirmation that it was time to "fully, deeply and completely address the long-standing inequities, unfairness and discrimination that has been the history of USDA programs for far too long.”
Vilsack has also pledged to explore using USDA funds to pay farmers for climate-friendly practices, saying the Commodity Credit Corp. is “a great too for us to create the kind of structure that will inform future farm bills about what will encourage carbon sequestration.”
Vilsack will also be charged with examining a frozen round of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, which were authorized by Congress in a December omnibus and COVID-19 relief package. The Biden administration held up the payments — $20 per acre for row crop producers as well as assistance for livestock and poultry farmers forced to depopulate their herds or flocks — as part of a regulatory freeze shortly after taking office.
Major farm organizations heartily welcomed the return of a trusted farm hand.
“Secretary Vilsack is uniquely qualified to head up the USDA, having served there previously, and has an exceptional understanding of agricultural and rural issues,” said NAWG CEO Chandler Goule. “We look forward to working with him and continuing to build our relationship with the USDA.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, one of two Republicans representing Vilsack’s home state of Iowa in the Senate, voiced his support for Vilsack’s nomination in a floor speech Monday afternoon ahead of the vote.
“Mr. Vilsack is the right person for this job,” Grassley said. “I know that Secretary Vilsack will continue to work for family farmers and spotlight these farmers’ contribution to agriculture and what agriculture does for society as a whole.”
Spencer Chase contributed to this report. Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.