President-elect Joe Biden has selected Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary, according to three people familiar with the decision.
Vilsack, who served as Agriculture secretary for eight years under the Obama administration, was a top rural and agriculture policy adviser during Biden’s presidential campaign. He’s also a former governor of Iowa and was a top contender to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016.
One person familiar with Biden’s thinking said Vilsack’s previous experience running the department was instrumental in the decision because the president-elect wanted someone who could immediately tackle the hunger and farm crises that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. This person added Biden was impressed by Vilsack’s tenure as the head of the department.
While leading USDA, Vilsack focused on leveraging the $150 billion department’s mission beyond its traditional focus on farmers, delving deeper into other areas like rural development and nutrition programs that aid millions of low-income Americans. He oversaw a major update to school nutrition standards that was spearheaded by former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Since the end of the Obama administration, Vilsack has been leading the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a trade group that advocates for the dairy industry overseas. Vilsack is expected to be formally announced as the pick as soon as this week.
The USDA is expected to play a major role in the Biden administration’s response to climate change, which likely made the job more attractive for Vilsack to return. After decades of resistance to even talking about climate change, farm groups are starting to warm up to policies that give farmers incentives to capture and store carbon in their soil. An idea recently gaining traction is to expand the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation borrowing authority to create a carbon bank to help pay farmers and other landowners for carbon sequestration.
POLITICO first reported Monday that Vilsack had emerged as Biden’s top choice after weeks of jockeying by other hopefuls.
Vilsack, who largely avoided major controversy during his tenure, faces an expected easy path to Senate confirmation. Sen. Chuck Grassley told reporters on Tuesday that he likes what Vilsack “did as secretary of Agriculture for eight years and if he was in for another four years it’d be OK with me.” The Iowa Republican also offered to speak on behalf of Vilsack during confirmation proceedings.
Still, his appointment is likely to enrage the progressive wing of the agriculture lobby which has been pressing for a fresh vision at the department in order to aggressively tackle climate change, consolidation of agribusiness and racial inequities within the industry.
Civil rights leaders and groups representing farmers of color have already publicly urged against Vilsack’s selection, noting that a broad, national coalition had publicly supported picking Rep. Marcia Fudge for the role. The Ohio Democrat, a longtime leader on the House Agriculture Committee, would have been the first Black woman and only the second woman to serve in the post.
In addition to the disappointment that Biden did not opt for a diverse pick for the department — which has been almost exclusively led by white men since the Civil War — there is also increasing criticism of Vilsack’s own record on race during the Obama administration.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson called the prospect of Vilsack “extremely problematic for the African-American community” in a recent interview on CNN.
An investigation last year by The Counter, a nonprofit newsroom, found that USDA had falsely inflated the department’s record on civil rights under Vilsack’s leadership.
In 2010, Vilsack came under fire after Shirley Sherrod, then USDA’s Georgia director of rural development, was wrongly forced to resign after a deceptively edited Breitbart video appeared to show her claiming to have short-changed a white farmer because Black farmers had long faced discrimination.
Once Sherrod’s full remarks came to light, revealing that she had not only not discriminated against the farmer but helped him save his farm, both Vilsack and the White House apologized for the government’s reaction. (Emails later showed the White House had been very involved in Sherrod’s firing.)
Vilsack’s selection comes after former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp had been seen as the most likely pick for several weeks. Fudge also became a strong contender for the role with considerable backing from progressives and vocal support from House Whip Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden was considered crucial to his path to victory. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm had also been under consideration.
Fudge has been selected to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, POLITICO reported Tuesday.
In recent days, some lawmakers and industry leaders had been pressing the Biden team to consider Vilsack’s deputy at USDA Kathleen Merrigan and former United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez.
Vilsack will undoubtedly face questions over the state of the dairy industry after thousands of dairy farms went out of business amid a glut of milk and ongoing consolidation of the industry. As CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, he made about $1 million in 2018, his first full year on the job.
Vilsack will also have to decide whether to continue paying farmers to make up for losses caused by President Donald Trump’s trade war. Under Trump, the USDA has doled out unprecedented sums of money to farmers for coronavirus relief and trade aid, including a record $37 billion in 2020.
With Covid-19 cases rising across the country, the Biden administration will face pressure to avoid another fracturing of the food system. The nation continues to see long lines of thousands lined up outside food banks, underscoring the plight of out-of-work Americans.
The USDA oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which makes up roughly half the department’s budget. Demand for the program has soared as millions of families struggle to pay their bills and put food on the table.
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