- Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and USDA secretary for eight years under President Barack Obama, has been chosen to lead the department again by President-elect Joe Biden, several news organizations reported. The nomination could be made officially later this week, according to CNN.
- People familiar with the pick told news organizations that Biden chose Vilsack because he represents rural America, has a deep knowledge of the sprawling department — which deals with assistance to farmers, food aid, inspections and safety of meat, commodity prices and trade, school nutrition, biofuel production and forestry — and could be seen as a consensus pick for the post. However, his work during the last four years as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council may prove controversial.
- USDA has a broad and multifaceted mission, and leadership in this area is key to food, health and environmental policy. Current USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue is one of only six Trump administration Cabinet members to have stayed in his position for the last four years and policy has been rather steady. But it is likely a Biden administration will want to act quickly on issues made urgent by the coronavirus pandemic and changes put in place by the Trump administration. These include farmer assistance, food aid, environmental issues and international trade.
Biden's Cabinet picks so far have included many advisers he's worked with through the course of a four-decade political career. After Vilsack served in the same capacity for eight years under President Obama, he also fits this description. In addition to his time in the Obama administration during which Biden was vice president, Vilsack was one of the top agricultural advisers to the Biden campaign.
But Vilsack hadn't even been mentioned much as a potential pick until the last week. Many insiders thought Biden would give the job either to former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp or Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge. According to Politico, the potential pick of Heitkamp, who is White, over Fudge, who is Black, had been criticized by Black leaders who felt Biden's Cabinet needed more diversity. The likely nomination of Vilsack, who is White, was reported on at the same time as Fudge's expected choice as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Vilsack is seen as a consensus — and relatively noncontroversial — choice. In 2009, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on a voice vote on the same day Obama took office. While the political dynamics of 2021 are very different, both sides of the political aisle have supported Vilsack. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, offered his approval on a call with reporters earlier this week, The Hill reported.
Not only is Vilsack likely to be confirmed, but he also has deep ties to a state that is entrenched in the agriculture industry. According to USDA, Iowa has the nation's second most valuable agricultural commodities, and is responsible for 7.4% of all commodity sales. There are 85,300 farms in Iowa, and corn, soybeans, ethanol, eggs and pork are among the largest outputs in the agricultural space. Vilsack also has been hailed as an important connection to rural Americans, many of whom supported Trump's reelection.
But some progressives are critical about Vilsack's tenure in office under Obama. Center for Food Safety Policy Director Jaydee Hanson said in an emailed statement that Vilsack would represent a "huge step backwards" based on his prior approval of GMO crops and a failure to oppose mergers in the meat industry.
Others took issue with his current job. Soon after Trump took office, Vilsack became the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a membership organization which represents global trade interests of the dairy industry. The group has pushed for expanded growth in dairy exports, and has recently pushed for increased trade with Asia.
In an emailed statement, Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of Friends of the Earth's Food and Agriculture Program, called Vilsack "an agribusiness lobbyist with a tarnished record on civil rights, consolidation, and the environment."
However, Vilsack is positioned to do what is needed for the department now. As the U.S. continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic's impact on the economy, someone with deep knowledge of the department and its assistance programs would be helpful from the outset. USDA also would play a vital role in trade policy reforms, which may be one of Biden's first big international policy targets. And Vilsack also could step in to rejuvenate USDA's Economic Research Service, the department's arm responsible for providing data and information on agriculture. The Trump administration moved ERS' headquarters from Washington, D.C. to the Kansas City area last year — which resulted in massive resignations and a slowdown in research.
"Secretary Vilsack was always willing to listen to all stakeholders and all points of view on important food policy issues like the Dietary Guidelines, BE ingredient labeling and sustainable agriculture," Sean McBride, a longtime food policy communications consultant with DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, said in an email. "It is that skill that makes him well positioned to deal with pandemic-related issues like SNAP, school meals, supply chain disruptions and other issues that will need his immediate attention.”
It's unlikely Vilsack will change priorities around food safety and labeling reform that are currently pending in USDA. Many of the ongoing reforms in this department, including GMO labeling and developing a regulatory framework for cell-based meat, were started during the Obama administration and have continued to develop during the last four years.