Biden chooses moderate Vilsack to return as agriculture secretary

Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary throughout the Obama years, is President-elect Biden’s choice to lead the USDA as farmers seek to recover from a trade war with China and the Covid-19 pandemic. A former governor of Iowa, Vilsack was a top backer of Biden in rural America during the fall campaign and would bring to the administration friendly relations with lawmakers and farm groups.

Biden was expected to announce the nomination formally later in the week. He did not respond to shouted questions from reporters in Delaware on Tuesday night about upcoming cabinet appointments. Along with Vilsack for agriculture secretary, sources said Biden had decided on Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge for housing secretary. Until Monday, she was a front-runner for the USDA.

After a rocky start with initially skeptical farm groups, Vilsack became a popular figure in farm country as a proponent of corn ethanol, larger farm exports and a strong farm safety net with crop insurance as the prominent strand. Activist farm groups said he failed to stop mergers and the growing power of processors. Congress blocked him for a number of years from issuing a regulation on fair play in agricultural marketing. He worked with First Lady Michelle Obama in winning congressional approval of school nutrition standards in 2010.

The USDA projects economic recovery for the farm sector in 2021 with rapid U.S. growth, low interest rates and low inflation. However, federal subsidies are providing nearly 40 percent of farm income this year and large Trump-era payments will end in the next few weeks. Commodity prices rallied in the fall and if they remain high in the new year, farm income would run at levels seen before the trade war with China, although lower than this year.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said on Tuesday that he would speak on behalf of Vilsack at Senate nomination hearings, if requested. “I liked what Vilsack did as secretary of agriculture for eight years and if he was in for another four years, it would be okay with me,” said Grassley.

Vilsack would be a middle of the road choice, compared to calls by activists to re-orient the USDA to emphasize public nutrition programs, such as SNAP, that are two-thirds of the USDA budget.

Former agriculture secretaries Dan Glickman and Mike Espy, who served in the Clinton era, said earlier on Tuesday that farming was likely to remain the focus of the department, despite the hopes of reformers. “USDA focuses on production agriculture because the Congress wants it to focus on production agriculture,” said Glickman.

“All these functions are very important but the production function still leads the rest,” said Espy. “But it’s closely followed on by the nutrition and (rural) development and the rest of them, so you can’t sacrifice one to the good of the other. The secretary, whoever he or she might be, has to balance all the equities.”

Vilsack already was the longest-serving agriculture secretary in half a century, having served eight years for President Obama. The USDA record is 16 years, also the longest tenure by any cabinet secretary in U.S. history, by “Tama Jim” Wilson, who served under three presidents a century ago.

“It’s Tama Tom,” said a former USDA official, wryly referring to Vilsack’s return.

A long-time member of the House Agriculture Committee, Fudge is the second African American tapped for a cabinet seat this week. She was mayor of Warrensville Heights, a Cleveland suburb, for eight years before election to the House. If confirmed, Fudge, 68, would be the second Black woman to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Along with House Rules chairman Jim McGovern, Fudge is one of the foremost proponents of SNAP and other antihunger programs in Congress, which brought her consideration for agriculture secretary.

During the past summer, Fudge criticized the food-box giveaway program that is the Trump administration’s answer to hunger during the pandemic. She is also an advocate of higher SNAP benefits.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, would have to call a special election to replace Fudge if she joins the Biden cabinet. In the session beginning in January, Democrats will have a 222-211 majority in the House, with 218 votes needed to pass legislation.