Ag pick Vilsack faces huge bureaucracy, learning curve

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will inherit a lumbering bureaucracy and have lots to learn about fruits and vegetables as the nation's next agriculture secretary.

A conventional choice who still caught Capitol Hill by surprise, Vilsack is well-rooted in Midwestern commodities but not in the bounty from states such as California and Florida. Specialty crop growers consequently will keep lobbying to buttress the new farm chief with their allies.

On Wednesday, President-elect Barack Obama played up Vilsack's agricultural expertise as he announced him as his choice to run the Agriculture Department.

"Obviously, if you don't know agriculture, you're not going to become governor of Iowa," Obama said at a news conference, adding that Vilsack has "also been forward-looking" in his policies.

Because Congress already has set crop subsidies and other agricultural policies for the next five years, with a farm bill enacted in May over President George W. Bush's veto, Vilsack could be a low-visibility Cabinet secretary. Even so, he'll confront a difficult-to-manage agency that spends $89 billion a year.

The Agriculture Department's systematic problems, identified by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, include:

_ Subsidy abuse. The Agriculture Department paid crop subsidies totaling $1.1 billion in the names of 172,800 deceased individuals from 1999 to 2005. Critics decry the continuing payment of subsidies to wealthy farmers.

_ Food dangers. Food safety-inspection staffing has declined steadily over the past decade despite budget increases, while the quantity of contaminated meat and poultry recalled by industry has increased sharply.

_ Civil rights woes. Even after paying nearly $1 billion to minority farmers as a result of a class-action lawsuit, the department faces persistent discrimination complaints.

"I look forward to the challenge," Vilsack said Wednesday, adding that "farmers and ranchers deserve a secretary of agriculture that respects them."

Vilsack stressed, in order, the importance of "improving profitability for farmers," the need for "sustainable practices" and fighting "global climate change," and the centrality of good nutrition in feeding programs.

With its 17 agencies and 110,000 employees, the Agriculture Department poses administrative challenges. Frequently, deputy agriculture secretaries are selected to handle day-to-day management while the secretaries take on broader tasks. With the secretary's job spoken for, the lobbying for these crucial administrative positions probably will escalate.

Karen Ross, the head of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, was in Washington meeting with farm organizations earlier this week, and numerous California farm groups are championing her to be the next deputy. Three of the past five deputy agriculture secretaries have come from California, reflecting the state's relative farm clout.

"If the Obama administration wants to provide balance, they will also need to have a Westerner who understands California agriculture," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

Cardoza praised Vilsack as a moderate and "a fine choice," as did major national farm organizations.

"Overall, we're pleased, despite his not being from a specialty crop state," said Robert Guenther, the senior vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association. "As governor, he's demonstrated a firm grasp of agricultural issues."

Vilsack, who turned 58 last week, served two four-year terms as the governor of Iowa. He made a short-lived run for president starting in November 2006, and later endorsed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for the job. He went to college and law school in New York state and then moved to Iowa to join a law firm.

He's more lawyer and politician than farmer. The law firm of Dorsey & Whitney, where Vilsack is an attorney but not a partner, describes him as having "more than 25 years of trial experience handling complex litigation and class actions with statewide and national implications."

Still, his Midwestern background, political strengths and compelling personal history of being adopted at birth made him an early front-runner for the agriculture secretary's job. Seven of the last 10 agriculture secretaries were from the Midwest, one was from the South and two were from California.

Vilsack's years in Iowa have made him a big fan of ethanol, the government-subsidized fuel that provides an additional market for corn. His adopted home state leads the nation in producing pork, corn, soybeans and eggs. However, fruit and vegetable production in just one modest-sized county in California's Central Valley — San Joaquin — was quadruple that of the entire state of Iowa.

"Now, the next step is to build a team around him," Guenther said.

Vilsack had seemed to end the speculation when he declared Nov. 23 that the Obama team hadn't contacted him. On Capitol Hill and in the news media, the conventional wisdom grew that Vilsack had formally ruled himself out; what he said Nov. 23, though, was never that definite.

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