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Vilsack the pragmatist
The news that Tom Vilsack had been tapped to be President-elect Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture was greeted warmly by Iowans of all political stripes, and for good reason. During his two terms as Iowa governor, Vilsack endeared himself to both the left and the right. But the Democrat who was both the first to enter and the first to leave the 2008 presidential campaign had his critics.
On matters of agriculture, Vilsack was a pragmatic centrist, content with incremental changes and reluctant to take steps to significantly disrupt the status quo. When he successfully ran for his first term as governor in 1998, the generally pro-Republican Farm Bureau decided not to oppose him, choosing instead to endorse both him and his opponent. That was an impressive feat for an underdog Democrat running for governor — especially for a trial lawyer who had never farmed a day in his life.
He has clearly thought about what he would do in his new position. In an interview with a Minnesota college newspaper just before Election Day, Vilsack said Agriculture is “a department that impacts every American.”
In the interview, he cited the international food crisis as an opportunity to use America’s “soft power.” He suggested promoting renewable energy was part of the job. “How do you accelerate the research and development that gets you to second-generation bio-fuels?” he asked.
He also mentioned the school nutrition program, saying “you have to be focused on whether we are doing right by our children in schools across America in terms of nutritious food that we subsidize and we provide in school lunch programs.”
He even spoke of controlling forest fires which, it turns out the Agriculture Secretary has a role in.
While he was governor, Vilsack remained largely above the fray of ongoing feuds over the placement of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) near rural communities. Groups on the left who would like to give local communities stricter control over where the CAFOs are allowed felt betrayed by their governor’s unwillingness to help, but his stance kept agribusiness interests relatively quiet.
Vilsack’s most noticeable impact on rural Iowa did not involve changes to agricultural policy or stricter environmental regulations, but rather tax credits and business incentives. His economic development efforts — most notably the Iowa Values Fund, which was designed to create grants, loans, and tax incentives for businesses who choose to locate in the state — have been credited for short-term successes in many corners of the state, but critics in his own party argued that they amounted to corporate welfare. In any event, the long-term benefits remain difficult to measure.
Vilsack was a pragmatist by necessity. For all eight of his years at Iowa’s helm, he faced a Republican-controlled legislature. His allies on the left say his record might have looked different if Democrats won control of the statehouse a few years earlier. He chose not to run for a third term in 2006 despite his relative popularity, opting instead to explore a presidential bid that quickly flopped.
As a presidential candidate in a crowded Democratic primary, Vilsack, who served as chair of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council until only months earlier, seemed to move farther to the left on environmental issues, embracing an ambitious but seemingly arbitrary requirement that, by 2020, all new power plants constructed must be carbon-free. His campaign even bought carbon credits to offset its campaign activities.
Vilsack also subtly tempered his enthusiasm for corn-based ethanol over the course of his candidacy, shifting to a more tenable position in favor of all forms of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels, using corn ethanol merely as a “transitional fuel.”
From the few glimpses we have gotten of Vilsack’s federal agricultural policy positions, it is clear that he supports stricter limits on farm subsidies than Congress was able to pass in the 2008 Farm Bill. That puts him in line with the President-elect and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Perhaps unfortunately for Vilsack, it will likely be another four or five years before Congress passes the next farm bill, and that is longer than a typical cabinet secretary has to wait.
In the interim, Vilsack will be tasked with many administrative and regulatory responsibilities, and he seems intent on pushing other policy goals in line with the Democrats’ agenda.
Expect the incoming Secretary of Agriculture to achieve tangible results that are easy to explain, because that is Vilsack’s style. He will immerse himself in a few specific issues, come up with a few policy ideas, and set to work building a political consensus, diluting the original ideas when necessary.
Don’t expect Vilsack, a consummate pragmatist, to turn America’s food system upside down anytime soon.