Senate panel advances Vilsack nomination to head Agriculture Dept.

Agriculture secretary nominee Tom Vilsack received bipartisan praise from senators during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, with a Senate panel voting unanimously to advance his nomination to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) again.

“It’s not lost on me ironically that this is Groundhog Day and I’m back again,” Vilsack, 70, quipped in his opening remarks before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Vilsack, who is president of the dairy lobby group the U.S. Dairy Export Council, served for eight years as head of the USDA under former President Obama. Before that, he was the governor of Iowa.

Sen. John Boozman (Ark.), the top Republican on the Senate panel, remarked about Vilsack’s “excellent reputation” in welcoming him to the hearing Tuesday.

Vilsack also received across-the-aisle support from GOP Sen. Charles Grassley, a senator from his home state of Iowa. The senator introduced Vilsack and said he “can’t think of a single quarrel that I’ve had with Secretary Vilsack.”

Grassley added that Vilsack knows agriculture well and that Vilsack also knows the importance of maintaining the institution of the family farm.

Vilsack’s nomination was advanced later in the day by a voice vote. It now heads to the full Senate, where it requires a simple majority.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the incoming chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement that she looks forward to his quick confirmation by the full Senate.

During his confirmation hearing, Vilsack fielded questions on trade, saying that he will work collaboratively with the rest of the administration on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and provide advice and counsel on additional free trade agreements.

“I think it’s fair to say that we have work to do to make sure that we have a competitive opportunity,” Vilsack said.

Stabenow called former President Trump’s trade policies “chaotic” and said they “destroyed markets that took decades to build.”

Vilsack told Stabenow that he will work to stabilize and secure trade policy that “doesn’t create havoc on the market.”

He discussed the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and said he would work to make sure the USDA takes a greater role in fighting food insecurity.

He said he would bolster the capacity at food banks and pantries to keep up with the recent demand, adding that he will “make this system much more resilient.” 

Vilsack said he hopes to work to fight climate change, including partnering with Congress on efforts toward zero emission agriculture.

He was also pressed by senators on his stance on the biofuel industry. 

“Biofuels pay a role in reducing emissions and providing job opportunities in all parts of the country,” he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told him about her concern over promises Obama gave to farmers in the biofuel industry. Vilsack answered by telling her he drives a 2006 Ford Focus but also wants to educate people on the environmental benefits of biofuels.

“I would remind him that there are so many, many Americans like me and my wife that have cars that are six, seven, eight, 10, 12 years old and that the reality is that we’re going to need both,” he said. “We’re going to need a biofuel industry.”

He also touted President Biden’s commitment to advance biofuels on the campaign trail.

Updated: 3:17 p.m.

Tags Amy Klobuchar biden administration Biden cabinet Charles Grassley Debbie Stabenow Department of Agriculture Donald Trump John Boozman Joni Ernst Tom Vilsack USDA

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