By Kevin Bogardus - 06/03/11 10:00 AM EDT
Tom Vilsack thought he knew a lot about the Agriculture Department from his days as a farm-state governor, but he found out he had a lot to learn when he took the helm as secretary in 2009.
“Honestly, when I was governor of Iowa, I didn’t understand the reach of USDA, so it has been a learning opportunity for me,” Vilsack said. “The thing that surprised me the most is the scope of USDA and how underappreciated that scope is by folks.”
To drive the point home, Vilsack noted during his interview with The Hill that he had just come from a meeting on Afghanistan. The department has 95 offices overseas that deal with international aid.
Vilsack has been in charge of the USDA and its more than 100,000 employees since January of 2009, when the Senate confirmed him.
His profile is certain to rise in Washington as the Obama administration and Congress begin work on a farm bill, which is up for reauthorization next year.
The farm legislation usually comes with a hefty price tag since it funds farm subsidies. But a costly bill might be a hard sell now that budget austerity is in vogue in Washington.
The Obama administration has targeted farm subsidies for cuts in the past — much to the irritation of farm-state lawmakers who say the funding is critical for food producers.
Vilsack’s relationships with lawmakers on Capitol Hill will be a useful asset for the administration as the debate over farm legislation gains steam.
“Tom is a strong ally for U.S. agriculture. He gets it and understands it’s important for all the varied interests to work together,” said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the House Agriculture Committee’s ranking member.
The Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking member, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), said Vilsack “believes in rural America and is a passionate advocate for bringing the next generation into agriculture.”
Cuts have already eaten into USDA’s operating budget for this year. In the compromise deal that averted a government shutdown, the department’s funding was slashed by $2.3 billion. That reduction — combined with expectations that more belt-tightening is on the way — will force USDA to refocus on its “core responsibilities,” Vilsack said.
“There are going to be things that we maybe can’t do but that we would love to be able to do,” Vilsack said. “We are clearly taking a look at our workforce. We are going to be looking at ways in which we encourage folks who are near retirement to consider that and then make the determination of whether those jobs are filled or not.”
More cuts to farm programs are already looming. Vilsack cited the House Appropriations Committee’s “interesting” move this week to cap subsidies for the wealthiest farmers, which he said resembles past proposals from the administration.
“I think there’s no question that the system is going to change, because there is bipartisan agreement that the system has to change because we don’t have the resources,” Vilsack said.
Nevertheless, the Cabinet secretary said the next farm bill must set aside resources to help farmers in distress.
“They need a safety net. They need a crop insurance program that works. They need to make sure that we have a disaster program in place in the event they have a major catastrophe,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack noted that the farmers affected by the severe storms in Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri will need help from the federal government.
The secretary has been busy assisting with Washington’s response to the tornadoes and recently toured hard-hit communities in Alabama and Mississippi.
“The devastation is far more widespread and far more severe than just about anything I have ever seen,” said Vilscak, who had to deal with tornado damage as a governor in Tornado Alley.
Vilsack said the USDA is helping the towns and cities destroyed by the tornadoes not only by providing food aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but also by looking at how the department’s home loan program and community facility grants could help rebuild those areas.
One of the top issues for farmers this year are the pending trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Vilsack is a big supporter of all three agreements, which he says would be a boon for the U.S. agriculture industry.
The sticking point for the trade deals is whether to renew an expanded Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Vilsack said Congress should sign off on the aid in tandem with the trade pacts.
“There is no … reason why we can’t get these trade agreements and trade assistance done quickly, because the trade agreements do have very positive impacts and effects on agriculture,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack has worked hard to turn the page on USDA’s poor civil rights history. During his more than two years in office, he has been able to secure a number of large settlements between the department and several different minority farmer groups that have alleged discrimination by USDA when applying for farm loans.
The secretary found himself embroiled in a civil rights controversy last year when he fired Shirley Sherrod, a black USDA employee, when a video surfaced of her saying she discriminated against white farmers. The video turned out to be heavily edited and left out Sherrod’s explanation that she eventually helped and befriended those farmers.
Vilsack quickly apologized to Sherrod after the unedited footage surfaced. USDA has been working to bring Sherrod back to the department to help oversee its effort to improve its civil rights record. He said the media are missing the bigger picture, which is that USDA has gone to great lengths to make sure it doesn’t repeat past mistakes.
“You guys are missing the point on this. The focus is on Shirley, and the focus shouldn’t be on Shirley, no disrespect to her. The focus should be on the effort of transforming USDA,” Vilsack said. “And Shirley is going to have, I hope, a role in helping oversee that opportunity and that effort.”
Vilsack said the department’s contract with Sherrod is “in the early stages of discussion.”
“For whatever reason, folks want to focus on one person instead of focusing on the major effort that a lot of people are undertaking, including Shirley, to bring this department into a new day in civil rights,” Vilsack said.