Biden Plans To Bring Vilsack Back To USDA Despite Criticism From Reformers

Dec 9, 2020
Originally published on December 9, 2020 1:29 pm

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Obama Cabinet veteran and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, a source familiar with transition discussions confirmed to NPR.

Vilsack returns to an agency he helmed for eight years as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is best known for supporting farmers but actually has a much greater impact on the country through its funding of food aid programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and school meals. The USDA estimates that 1 in 4 Americans takes advantage of at least one of these food programs during a typical year.

Vilsack became the safe, comfortable choice for Biden after competition for the USDA job set off a battle between two wings of the Democratic Party.

Traditional farm lobby groups had rallied behind former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, while reformers, who want the USDA to spend its money fighting hunger and climate change, pushed for Rep. Marcia Fudge from Cleveland. Biden has now named Fudge as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the first Black woman to head the agency since the 1970s.

If Biden hoped that the two camps both would welcome Vilsack's return, he's likely to be disappointed. Vilsack is currently chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, an organization backed by the dairy industry.

Advocates seeking to reform USDA to better assist low-income Americans have said a Vilsack nomination would strengthen a status quo they say favors large corporate farm interests.

"Vilsack has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants — some of whom he has gone to work for," said Mitch Jones, policy director for Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

Ricardo Salvador, director of food and environment for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says Vilsack "handled an impossible job well" in his previous tenure at the USDA. But Salvador says the situation now demands someone new. "If we measure what we need against what he accomplished, he falls short," Salvador says.

Vilsack grew up in Pittsburgh and was trained as a lawyer but became acquainted with agriculture as Iowa's governor from 1999 to 2007.

He takes over a department that traditionally has been focused on the well-being of farmers. Sonny Perdue, the current secretary, referred to farmers as the department's "customers" and told the department's employees that "our mission is to provide our farmers, ranchers, foresters and producers with what they need, when they need it."

Over the past two years, as farmers coped with the impact of the Trump administration's trade war and the coronavirus, Perdue's department sent them a record-breaking flood of government aid. In 2020 alone, direct federal payments to farmers are expected to reach $46 billion, far exceeding the amount of farm subsidies in any previous year.

Perdue was less enthusiastic about other parts of the USDA, including SNAP and school meals, which feed millions of low-income Americans. Perdue tried to restrict SNAP benefits to non-disabled adults without dependents, although that move was put on hold when the pandemic hit.

Perdue's USDA also downplayed research devoted to climate change. Two of the department's leading research groups were ordered to move from Washington, D.C., to new offices in Kansas City, ostensibly to promote closer contact with the department's "stakeholders." Most of the staff of those agencies resigned, rather than accepting the move, which one White House official suggested was a welcome outcome.

Some are now calling for a U-turn in the department's priorities, saying that the USDA could become a prime sponsor of action on climate change. That's partly because the agency has money to spend. Its budget already includes billions of dollars for programs that can be used to pay for solar and wind power in rural areas, or for agricultural practices that capture carbon dioxide from the air.

The USDA also has a multibillion-dollar pot of money, called the Commodity Credit Corp., which the Trump administration used as a funding vehicle for its payments to farmers. The head of Biden's USDA transition team, Robert Bonnie, has called for converting the CCC into a "carbon bank" that would pay farmers for practices that limit greenhouse emissions.

In addition, the USDA runs the U.S. Forest Service, which manages almost 200 million acres of land across the country. The Forest Service often gets lost within the USDA, but that could change as forests grow more vulnerable to a warming, fire-prone climate. The Forest Service is facing calls to manage that land more aggressively, carrying out more frequent prescribed burns to reduce the chances of catastrophic wildfires. It could also boost reforestation funding, in part to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow down climate change.

Cabinet officials rarely return to the same job in a different administration, but it's happened before. James "Tama Jim" Wilson, a Scottish immigrant who settled in Iowa, held the agriculture post for 16 years, from 1897 to 1913, under Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

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President-elect Biden is ready to announce two more Cabinet nominations this morning. One name is familiar. Biden wants Tom Vilsack, who served as secretary of agriculture in the Obama administration, to return to that same job. And he's nominating Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to be secretary of housing and urban development. This is interesting. A lot of people had been urging Biden to pick Fudge for the agriculture job instead.

Joining me now is NPR's Dan Charles, who covers food and agriculture for us. Hi, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about Representative Marcia Fudge. Why were so many people pushing for her to get the ag job?

CHARLES: So there's an interesting thing about the Department of Agriculture. It was set up to help farmers back when farmers were half of the country, and it still does a lot of that. But the country's changed, and the biggest part of the USDA's budget now is nutrition aid - you know, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program...

GREENE: Right.

CHARLES: ...SNAP, school lunches. And Marcia Fudge has been one of the fiercest defenders of those nutrition programs on Capitol Hill. She represents a district that includes much of Cleveland, also Akron, Ohio. She's been on the House Agriculture Committee. She and her supporters felt it was high time for the top USDA job to go to somebody who saw those nutrition programs as the department's big priority.

GREENE: And not just sort of a change in emphasis, but this would have been a historic break with the past in that job. She's a Black woman, right?

CHARLES: And she would have been the first Black woman in that job, only the second woman, period. Also, there's another thing - you know, most agriculture secretaries have been connected somehow to farming or farming areas. She's from a city. Well, you know, in the end, it did not happen, David. Marcia Fudge will now be nominated, apparently, to be secretary of housing and urban development instead. And for agriculture, Biden went for somebody much more traditional.

GREENE: Tom Vilsack, maybe part two, former governor of Iowa, who would be coming back into the same job that he served under President Obama.

CHARLES: Right. He was secretary of agriculture for all eight years of the Obama administration, but apparently that was not enough for him.

GREENE: Once more.

CHARLES: He's a middle-of-the-road figure. People describe him as evenhanded. Certainly, he knows the issues. But some of those anti-hunger groups and environmental advocates who supported Fudge really are not happy about the Vilsack choice. It's partly because they wanted that change at the USDA - more focus on nutrition, also the environment. But there's another thing. Tom Vilsack, after he left the Obama administration, took a job as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which is an industry group. And his critics say this is kind of a sign of their problem with him. They say he's too cozy with the big companies that represent the status quo in agriculture.

GREENE: Well, I mean, you cover so much of this in very deep ways. I mean, talk about what policies may or may not change under a Biden administration with Vilsack at the helm of this department.

CHARLES: Vilsack represents continuity in a way, but there are things that people do expect to change. There's been an extraordinary development in the last couple years during the Trump administration. The secretary - the Department of Agriculture passed out record-breaking amounts of financial aid to farmers - this year alone, $46 billion in direct government payments. I think that is not going to continue.

There's another thing. The USDA may turn into a bit of an environmental agency, play a big role, perhaps, in climate change. It has some money for this. Rural development programs could help pay for clean energy in rural areas. Their plan is to pay farmers for practices on the farm that reduce greenhouse emissions. Could also promote reforestation - the U.S. Forest Service is actually part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and those forests are in the way as the climate heats up.

GREENE: NPR's Dan Charles covers food and agriculture. Dan, thanks so much.

CHARLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.