Vilsack vows he’ll work on Farm Bill

During a confirmation hearing in which lawmakers from both parties praised him, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) said he would work with Congress on implementing the 2008 Farm Bill.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he’d push for a vote next Tuesday on Vilsack’s confirmation as agriculture secretary.

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“It is my responsibility to promptly and properly implement the Farm Bill y’all passed,” said Vilsack, who promised to have an open-door policy with Capitol Hill. “If there is a problem, I would be happy to work with you.”

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle complained that the Bush administration had frequently moved away from congressional intent on the Farm Bill, which was passed over President Bush’s opposition.

Leaders of the committee have come under criticism from foreign countries, interest groups and the press for supporting farm legislation that boosts corporate farming at the expense of family farms and developing countries.

Senators have been particularly sensitive to criticism that last year’s Farm Bill was the epitome of Washington waste. Lawmakers said that compared to last fall’s $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, farm programs cost very little.

“I don’t want The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal preaching to us anymore about our little subsidies,” Harkin said.

Several senators pushed Vilsack to fight for agricultural programs in budget battles with his fellow Cabinet members.

“We need a spokesman. We need a champion. We need an educator,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), asking Vilsack to remind Obama that “these folks are those that provide the food and fiber that feeds the world.”

Vilsack often deferred from answering questions directly, and asked for more time to review the Agriculture Department’s operations once he is confirmed as secretary.

He also waxed nostalgic about his time in America’s Midwest, and cited his experience as an Iowa county lawyer helping farmers with their tax returns during the farm downturns of the 1980s.

“These are good people. These are hardworking people. This about a values system that is not only important to them but also to us,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack’s nomination was generally hailed by farm groups. He’s been a consistent supporter of farm programs, and also has promoted the use of ethanol and other biofuels.

President-elect Obama voted for the 2008 Farm Bill. He was criticized for the vote by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), his GOP opponent.

The former Iowa governor also said farm programs could serve as an engine of economic growth as the nation grapples with a deepening recession. The Agriculture Department could help create jobs in biofuels and nutrition programs, Vilsack said.

Vilsack appears to have an easy path to confirmation. The Agriculture panel’s top Democrat is a fellow Iowan whom Vilsack met in the 1980s, and Vilsack also won support from Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. The panel’s ranking GOPer, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), called for a swift confirmation.