Vilsack Approved by Senate Ag Committee to Lead USDA

White man in business suit stands behind podium with USA Rice Federation signage, American flag in background
Vilsack addresses the 2015 USA Rice Government Affairs Conference
Feb 03, 2021
WASHINGTON, DC -- Yesterday, Thomas J. Vilsack testified before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry during his confirmation hearing to hold the post of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Vilsack, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture for all eight years of his administration, is a former Iowa governor and most recently the chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.  He was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve again as agriculture chief.

The confirmation hearing format was impacted by the lack of a Senate organizing resolution, which dictates how the Senate functions.  Other committees that have met for confirmation hearings have been chaired by the Republican ranking member, however, the retirement of Sen. Pat Roberts left the Ag Committee with no chair.  Ultimately, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sen. John Boozman (R-AR), who will serve as chair and ranking member, respectively, co-chaired the meeting.

In his opening statement, Vilsack focused on the need for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to address climate change, food insecurity, the openness and competitiveness of markets, and the longstanding inequalities in USDA programs.  Vilsack called these issues “why not” opportunities that should lead to long-term goals for USDA to address and help the American farmer.  For the short term, he said, “I recognize the unprecedented challenge of facing COVID while pursuing these ‘why not’ opportunities, [and] will not shirk the responsibilities and duties of the department connected to COVID relief and recovery as well as all of our other responsibilities.”

Sen. Boozman questioned the secretary-designate on his plans and vision regarding trade for agriculture, including what work can be done to strengthen trade policies in the coming year, and more specifically, how Vilsack will work with the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and others in the executive branch to ensure agriculture is a top trade priority.

Vilsack emphasized the importance of communication between USDA and USTR, saying, “We need to make sure we work with them to implement trade agreements, specifically the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.  I think we want to provide advice and counsel, and direction and efforts to look at additional free-trade agreements that could potentially be negotiated during the course of the Biden Administration.”

When asked about climate and the role of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), particularly in relation to funding farm safety net programs, Vilsack said, “The first responsibility of the Commodity Credit Corporation is to make sure that farm bill programs are adequately, fully funded.”  He added that CCC funds could be useful as a means for carbon policies “to the extent that there are resources available,” and that he hoped Congress would afford him the “opportunity to utilize that in a way, again, that it doesn't compromise farm bill programs.”

Other questions for Vilsack covered fertilizer prices, livestock issues, and the Renewable Fuels Standard.

Vilsack’s nomination advanced unanimously by voice vote later yesterday afternoon.  A vote will need to be scheduled in the full Senate before Vilsack would be sworn in as the 32nd secretary of agriculture.

“USDA is a large and complex agency which requires leadership and having Senate confirmed appointees in place will ensure that the department can operate efficiently and serve its customers, our farmers,” said Ben Mosely, USA Rice vice president of government affairs.  “Agriculture has always been an area with broad bipartisan support and the unanimous vote out of committee reflects just that.  We’re eager to update the department and it’s new personnel on a host of rice-specific issues so the earlier nominees are approved, the sooner we can work directly with them to advocate on behalf of our industry.”

Vilsack’s confirmation is expected to advance quickly through the full Senate.