Vilsack faces farm bill challenge

Source: CHRISTOPHER DOERING, Des Moines Register • Posted: Tuesday, May 8, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tom Vilsack, Iowa’s former governor turned national agricultural chief, has managed to do something that’s nearly impossible for someone in his position: get almost everyone in the farm sector to like him.

But those warm feelings could soon be put to the test, as rural America closely watches maneuvering to enact a new half-trillion-dollar farm bill.

Vilsack, the 61-year-old cheerleader for rural America, has been largely spared the intense criticism that often hounds the country’s agriculture secretary. Those in agriculture attribute the high regard he’s enjoying to his ability to balance the diverse interests of various farm groups across the country.

It’s almost unimaginable to think that Vilsack, now ensconced in a second-floor office overlooking the National Mall in Washington, never thought about a future as agriculture secretary. He lived most of his life in Iowa — the country’s top soybean, corn and hog producer — and moved up the political ranks from mayor of Mount Pleasant to two-term governor.

“I never thought about this job until November 2008, and I would not have thought about it except for a call I received” from someone who had him as a top candidate for the position, Vilsack recalled.

“I appreciate this job every single day. I know how lucky I am to have it,” he said, surrounded in his spacious office at the USDA by agricultural-themed posters and paintings interspersed with memorabilia from his beloved hometown sports teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates.

Vilsack has been helped by the tailwinds of a strong farm economy at his back and has managed to avoid the kinds of headlines that thrust an agriculture secretary into the spotlight. Predecessors faced large food recalls and major animal disease outbreaks.

“He’s been very visible, and in the farm world, people like to see the secretary of agriculture,” said Tom Buis, chief executive of Growth Energy, which represents the ethanol industry, which Vilsack has championed. “They want to offer their input. They want to hear what he has to offer. I’m sure that’s a big part of (his popularity) as well as the timing of good prices, profitability in rural America.”

“Normally, secretaries of agriculture take a lot of heat, and I just haven’t heard it,” Buis said.

Biggest trip came with Sherrod firing

Lawmakers and farm groups who have worked closely with the gray-haired Vilsack describe him as accessible, intelligent, well-respected and deftly in tune with the issues that are relevant to rural America’s interests. While they have not always agreed with everything he has done, they find him likeable and someone they can work closely with.

After Vilsack was appointed, he drew concern that he was focusing too much of his time on organic production and specialty crops at the expense of commercial production.

His biggest flub in office, though, was largely self-inflicted. In July 2010, his boss, President Barack Obama, criticized him for rushing to judgment when he fired Shirley Sherrod, a USDA employee, over alleged racial allegations. When it turned out those claims were not true, Vilsack apologized, and the Obama administration offered her a full-time, high-level position at the USDA, but she did not accept it.

More recently, Vilsack drew the ire of the livestock industry and a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers who think he should have more quickly used his position as agriculture secretary to come to the defense of the beef industry and assure the public about the safety of lean, finely textured beef, which some groups call “pink slime.”

“There are a few areas of concern that we’d like to see improvement on, but that would hold true with any secretary of agriculture,” said Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. Farmers “find his job to be improving, and he’s doing a better job lately, listening better and actually speaking on behalf of agriculture a little better.”

Understanding farmers’ frustration

Vilsack said that since he took office in January 2009, he has come to realize that most Americans don’t have the same sensitivity and knowledge of agriculture as do his former constituents in Iowa, where he was a two-term governor from 1999 to 2007.

now understand better the frustration farmers feel when their message isn’t heard or understood,” Vilsack said during a recent stop in Des Moines. “Agriculture is an industry that is not fully appreciated.”

For starters, Vilsack likes to tell urban audiences that whatever their feelings may be about corn-fed ethanol — and increasingly sentiment has turned against the biofuel — the presence of ethanol blended into gasoline lowers the cost at the pump by as much as $1.30 per gallon.

He’s also begun what he calls his “one-man campaign” to rename the venerable farm bill the “Food, Farm and Jobs Bill,” legislation that could play a major role in defining how he is remembered once he leaves Washington.

‘Feeling the heat’ of budget squeeze

The U.S. farm law, which covers everything from food stamps and conservation programs to direct payments, expires on Sept. 30. Under pressure to trim government-wide spending and reduce the country’s deficit, the 2012 law could see the largest cuts in subsidy payments since 1990.

“He’s already feeling the heat that a lot of Cabinet secretaries are going to feel, and maybe agriculture more than others, but when we’ve got this big budget deficit, you aren’t going to be quite as popular when you are cutting spending as when you can spend all you want to, and particularly when it comes to implementing a new farm bill,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, who speaks with Vilsack every couple of months, or more often if there is a hot-button issue impacting agriculture.

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed its bill targeting $25 billion in cuts in farm bill programs over 10 years on April 26. Early signals indicate the House is seeking a reduction in spending of around $33 billion. The Senate bill eliminates the $5 billion a year in direct payments given to farmers regardless of need. Savings would be invested in a new revenue insurance program.

Good ag economy boosts popularity

The rural economy has been humming in recent years, with high crop prices and a record of $136.3 billion in farm exports during 2011, rebounding from the global recession. Even if income drops to $96.3 billion this year, as forecast by the USDA in February, farmers and ranchers would still be looking at their second-best year ever.

Grassley said in an interview, “You look at the history of secretaries of agriculture … a lot of them were hung in effigy when the agricultural economy has been bad, so he’s been fortunate to have a pretty good agriculture economy, and that would make any secretary of agriculture look good.”

Other Republicans in Congress generally give Vilsack high marks. Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoman who heads the House Agriculture Committee, described him as an engaged Cabinet member who cares about agricultural issues and arrived in Washington with a wealth of experience from his time in Iowa.

“In all fairness, he’s a member of the administration and there is just not an overall focus on ag,” said Lucas, who acknowledged Obama has had a host of other economic issues on his plate. “He’s doing the best job he can under difficult circumstances,” he told members of the North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington last month.

Farm bill response will be major test

A major test for Vilsack, Lucas said, will be how he reacts after Congress completes the farm bill.

“I would like to think that when we put a good farm bill on the president’s desk, I would hope that the secretary will recommend that the president sign it,” he said.

Vilsack has repeatedly urged Congress to act on the farm bill before October and has pledged to work more closely than his predecessors with lawmakers to help get one done. If Congress fails to act, he said lawmakers risk slowing or even stopping the torrid economic growth in rural America.

“If it does not get done, then we are left without programs to support farmers and ranchers, and we create a great deal of uncertainty, which no doubt will impact and affect decisions throughout the supply chain that will compromise the enormous progress we’ve seen recently,” he said. “Why would you not want to get this done, when things are going as well as they are going?”