Vilsack to Stay as USDA Secretary to Face Drought and Farm Bill

Tom Vilsack is staying on as agriculture secretary during President Barack Obama’s second term, when he’ll be dealing with the effects of the worst drought since the 1930s and a Congress that hasn’t been able to pass a new five-year farm bill.

In a speech today to an American Farm Bureau Federation conference in Nashville, Tennessee, Vilsack said he’s honored “to have another opportunity to continue this work.” Matt Paul, the Department of Agriculture’s communications director, said Obama asked Vilsack to stay on and Vilsack accepted.

During his first four years in office, Vilsack, 62, pushed for expanded export markets as U.S. farmers earned near-record profits and enjoyed the highest land values ever. Should he serve until 2017, the former Iowa governor would be the first person to head the Department of Agriculture for two terms since Orville Freeman led the agency under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, faces a difficult agenda, as farmers grapple with the drought, now in its third year in some parts of the country. Vilsack has said he’ll also continue to push Congress to pass a new five-year farm bill. The previous law was extended to September 30 after expiring last year. Farm bills guide U.S. agriculture policy and authorize spending for USDA programs including food stamps and crop subsidies.

Farm Prosperity

Vilsack’s continued tenure will be good for exporters such as Cargill Inc. and ethanol producers including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., Mark McMinimy, an analyst at Guggenheim Washington Research Group in Washington, said in an interview.

The secretary has consistently supported expanded U.S. shipments overseas, and he “has been at the forefront of efforts to position the Obama administration four-square behind initiatives that support the development and diffusion of biofuels and renewable energy,” he said.

Still, building consensus in an environment of cost-cutting will be difficult, said Chuck Conner, a former acting agriculture secretary under President George W. Bush. “Programs are just going to get reduced significantly,” he said.

Additionally, Vilsack will “need to prepare to implement a farm bill without knowing what or when it is. That’s a challenge,” said Conner, now president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives in Washington.

USDA Budget

The USDA has a budget of about $150 billion and is the third-biggest cabinet agency in spending after Defense and Health and Human Services. Food stamps for needy families account for about half of the department’s spending, with the remainder taken up by other nutrition programs and subsidies for farmers such as insurance for crops including corn, wheat and cotton.

Vilsack was elected as Iowa’s governor in 1998, the first Democrat to win the office in 32 years. He was re-elected in 2002. His wife, Christie Vilsack, unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by Republican Steve King of Iowa in last year’s campaigns.

In a brief bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Vilsack offered his life story as an example of overcoming adversity to rise to high public office. The Pittsburgh native was orphaned at birth and adopted from a Catholic orphanage. He moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, his wife’s hometown, to practice law and raise their two sons.

He was elected the town’s mayor in 1987 after his predecessor was shot and killed during a city council meeting.

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