January 14, 2009
Written by Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)
The Senate Agriculture Committee held a two and a half hour confirmation hearing with USDA Secretary-nominee Tom Vilsack Wednesday morning in the cavernous auditorium in the Senate office building basement. The session was efficient and without any major fireworks. The former Iowa Governor had well- scripted and thoughtful comments on the questions that were fired his way, though of course following the tried and true etiquette for confirmation hearings, did not provide any specific promises that could come back to haunt him later. The Committee will likely confirm the nomination unanimously later this week, though is unlikely to actually meet again to vote, opting instead to “hotline” the vote.
Here is a quick rundown on a few items from the hearing of particular interest to NSAC member organizations and readers:
• In his opening statement, Vilsack promised swift implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) which, alone among farm bill conservation programs, has languished under the Bush Administration since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill last May.
• In a letter to the Governor and an accompanying press release, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) today urged Vilsack to make further amendment to the interim rule issued by the Bush Administration on commodity program payment limit reform. Specifically, the Senators asked the nominee to fulfill President-elect Obama’s commitment to close the major loophole in the rule that attempts to limit payments to farmers actively engaged in agriculture or crop share landlords. This particular loophole is the single most important one allowing mega farming operations to collect payments in multiples of what otherwise appears to be the statutory dollar limit. In contrast, Senators Chambliss (R-GA) and Lincoln (D-AR) hinted at the hearing that the weak Bush Administration interim rule on this issue already goes too far.
• In his own opening statement, Senator Grassley (R-IA) hammered two additional points home – the need for speedy and aggressive enforcement by USDA of the new farm bill provision requiring corporations that contract with farmers to allow the farmer to opt out of any mandatory arbitration feature, and the need to swiftly write strong rules that will allow the Packers and Stockyards Administration to enforce the long-standing prohibition against undue preferences for large volume livestock producers relative to smaller volume producers.
• Interestingly for an confirmation hearing for USDA Secretary, the first question out of the box at the start of the Q&A was from Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) inquiring of the candidate’s thoughts on the role of USDA in health care reform. Even more interesting was the first part of the candidate’s answer in which Governor Vilsack spoke to the need for USDA to not only implement the farm bill’s fresh fruit and vegetable program but also to support local food and local food distribution systems for school and other government-funded feeding programs. Vilsack also said he would “work with those who seek programs and practices that lead to more nutritious food produced in a sustainable way.”
• Not surprisingly perhaps, the second question from the chairman dealt with CSP implementation, with the nominee not only giving his commitment to get the program moving again quickly, but also gave his talking points for the program as one that was a critical environmental program, a farm income opportunity, and a jobs program (relative to service providers and conservation practice contractors).
• In response to a philosophical question from former chairman Dick Lugar (R-IN) asking how can the Department help sustain hope in the agricultural countryside in the face of precarious economic times, Vilsack named four things he might focus on in the “hope” department: biofuels, CSP, wind and solar opportunities, and more aggressive rural economic development initiatives.
• Another former chairman, Pat Leahy (D-VT), weighed in with a comment that the Department is not keeping up with the rapid growth of organic and then with a question asking whether it wasn’t time for the Department to get on with the business of actually actively promoting organic. Vilsack said we need to “celebrate and support” organic and USDA should view it as one very legitimate option in a menu of options for improving farm incomes. Then, in response to an extended monologue from Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) deriding organic as marginal, Vilsack held his ground, but diffused the implied antagonism, saying the Department needs to support the full diversity of American agriculture.
• In a partisan reversal, Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) slammed the Bush Administration for writing commodity program rules that made-up policy not legislated in the 2008 Farm Bill removing commodity program base acre status to any acres that are or that become federal land, including land that is foreclosed on and moves temporarily into USDA inventory. Chambliss pleaded with the Democratic appointee to undue that revision made by the outgoing Republican USDA leadership team.
• In response to a question from Grassley about the Department’s poor civil rights record, Vilsack made clear that he would make rooting out continued discrimination a high priority, and then also volunteered that he was aware the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, created by the 2008 Farm Bill to put minority and beginning farmer and small farm issues front and center at the highest level of the Department, had not yet been implemented and therefore will be on his immediate agenda.
Categories: General Interest
Hopefully Vilsack will bring some 6 foot tall organic farmers into the administration, if only to stare down certain Senators on the committee. And for Chambliss that may have been a partisan reversal, but he and Blanche Lincoln probably discussed who was going to bring that topic up in the hearing before it started. Thanks for the good post.