Tom Vilsack will stay on in his current role as Agriculture Secretary, helping the White House and Congress make another run at crafting a long-term farm bill this year. (Thomas Brown / Staff file photo)
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will stay on in his current role, providing the White House with an experienced ally as Congress attempts to make another run at crafting a long-term farm bill this year.
Vilsack, the country’s 30th Agriculture secretary, has frequently mentioned how much he enjoys the job but until Monday has been reluctant to speculate on his future. During his first four years at the helm of USDA, the former Iowa governor has focused on promoting renewable fuels, pressing the need for more agriculture production on a local level, and more recently warning rural America that it is becoming less relevant in the country’s increasingly urban landscape and needs to do something to counter the development.
“It’s been an amazing four years,” Vilsack told reporters Monday after speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn. “I’m just thankful I’ll have more time because there’s more to do.”
Vilsack will not need Senate approval, which is required for new Cabinet nominees, to continue as Agriculture secretary in President Obama’s second term.
The 62-year-old cheerleader for rural America has been largely spared the intense criticism that often hounds the country’s Agriculture secretary, helped in large part by the tailwinds of a historically strong farm economy. For the most part, he has been praised by those in agriculture for his ability to balance the diverse interests of various farm groups across the country.
But Vilsack’s tenure hasn’t been without its own challenges. Early on, Vilsack drew concern that he was focusing too much on organic production and specialty crops at the expense of commercial production. His biggest flub in office, though, was largely self-inflicted. In July 2010, he was criticized by his boss, Obama, for rushing to judgment when he fired Shirley Sherrod, a USDA employee, for allegedly making racist remarks. It later turned out those claims were untrue.
“I think for the most part, frankly, he’s done a good job,” said Walt Bones, South Dakota’s agriculture secretary. “It’s hard to be in a position like that and agree with each and every thing that he’s done. His actions earned him” the opportunity to stay, he said.
Congress gave farmers and ranchers a brief reprieve with a nine-month farm bill extension as part of the recent “fiscal cliff” negotiations after Washington was unable to pass a new five-year $500 billion law last year. Many believe top GOP House leaders last year were reluctant to act on a farm bill ahead of the November election.
Efforts to craft a farm bill could be further complicated by the pressing need for Congress to address increasing the country’s debt ceiling and looming sequestration — automatic spending cuts that will kick in on March 1 unless Washington acts. Vilsack and others have expressed concern that when Washington does cut spending, agriculture could be asked to pay more than its fair share.
Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, said Vilsack has done a good job serving the interests of farmers and ranchers. “He represents us well,” said Hill. “He’s been advocating for all the right things,” he said, noting Vilsack’s recent push to get Congress to finish a farm bill.
If Vilsack remains at the USDA throughout Obama’s second term, which ends in January 2017, he would become the first secretary to head the department for two terms since Orville Freeman led it under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson for much of the 1960s.
Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin praised the White House’s decision to retain Vilsack.
“Secretary Vilsack’s tenure at the Department of Agriculture has been a bright spot in the Obama administration. Unfortunately, though, I expect we’ll see him deal with similar issues as we did in the last term,” said Grassley, referring to issues such as the farm bill and civil rights at USDA. “There’s a lot at stake for rural America over the next four years, and Secretary Vilsack will be a positive influence on the department and the administration.”
Christopher Doering reports for Gannett Washington Bureau.