Senators urge Vilsack to solve old problems
Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary in the Obama administration and President Biden’s nominee for agriculture secretary, testifies virtually at a Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday. Photo by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report
The Hagstrom Report
The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve President Biden’s nomination of Tom Vilsack to be Agriculture secretary, but only after several members urged him to address the same problems that he faced and found difficult to solve when he was agriculture secretary in the Obama administration.
The hearing was odd in that Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., gaveled the members to order but noted that the committee did not have a chair because Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., had retired and the Senate has not yet passed an organizing resolution that will make Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the chair and Boozman the ranking member. The Senate is composed of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, but Vice President Harris has the 51st vote, putting the Democrats in charge.
Vilsack testified virtually from his home in Iowa, but Boozman noted that Vilsack has agreed to return to testify before the committee in person four to six weeks after he assumes his position.
After the committee vote was held Tuesday afternoon off the Senate floor, Stabenow and Boozman both said they will urge Senate leaders to hold the floor vote as soon as possible.
In an opening statement, Boozman noted that the ag economy had been good in the early Obama years but later went downhill. Boozman urged Vilsack to have an influence at the Environmental Protection Agency, which writes a lot of regulations that affect farmers, and also to focus on supply chain and trade issues.
Stabenow said she had good memories of working with Vilsack in the Obama years, but said, “The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world before our very eyes. Many essential food workers were on the front lines without adequate protection. Farmers had no choice but to destroy the crops they could no longer sell. Millions of families still don’t have enough food to eat, and food banks are overwhelmed with unprecedented demand.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced Vilsack, saying it was “quite an honor to introduce a fellow who was governor” and that “I can’t think of a single quarrel I’ve had with Secretary Vilsack.”
Vilsack submitted written testimony but did not stick to it in his remarks.
Vilsack said that he had to recognize it is a different time, that he is “a different person” and that “it is a different department.”
Noting that the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., used to say that some people look at things as they are and ask why and others dream and ask why not, Vilsack said that the country is faced with a series of “why not opportunities” in agriculture, in the food industry and in rural America.
Vilsack said that, while addressing the coronavirus pandemic with food assistance, relief for farmers and making sure essential workers on the line and in the farm fields are protected and recognized as essential workers, he sees four longer-term “why not opportunities”:
▪ Climate change, including creating new markets, improving soil health and protecting forests.
▪ Food security and nutrition insecurity that leads to obesity.
▪ Openness and competitiveness of markets that can be addressed by new rules and laws and more food-processing facilities.
▪ Fully, deeply and completely addressing unfair practices and discrimination in USDA programs.
When Stabenow asked how the nation can, after the Trump years, the trade conflicts and COVID-19, “return to a sense of normalcy with a focus on responsible risk management,” Vilsack said “that is a complicated question” but that he would do his best, including developing new markets in southeast Asia and over time in Africa as well as growing domestic markets by making it easier for farmers to sell locally and negotiate prices and sell to schools.
Farmers are interested in addressing climate change if the programs are voluntary and market-based, he said.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., urged him to improve markets for timber and investigate what has happened with a petition for fertilizer tariffs that has led to a 25% increase in prices.
Responding to the concerns of Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and others about biofuels, Vilsack said he would continue to make the point within the Biden administration that the biofuels industry has made great environmental strides and provides environmental benefits.
He said he will also make the point to EPA that small refinery exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard were intended for small refineries and that waivers should be “very, very infrequent.”
On concerns about the Biden administration’s encouragement of electric vehicles, Vilsack said he makes the point that he has an old Ford Focus and that a lot of other people have conventional cars that could use renewable fuels with environmental benefits.
To Boozman and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who had concerns about the Biden administration’s decision to pause payments under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, Vilsack said that was an action that would have been taken by any new administration and is “not designed for anything but to get a better sense of that program.”
Hoeven also said that any carbon sequestration bank should be farmer-friendly, and Vilsack said that farmers should be the primary beneficiaries of such a bank.
Hoeven and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., both said that more needs to be done for livestock producers in terms of price, and Vilsack said that laws on price discovery should be strengthened. He also told Hoeven, Thune and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., that he would entertain any ideas to make sure consumers know what meat is American in a way that does not get the United States into trouble with the World Trade Organization, as the previous country-of-origin-labeling program did. He also told Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., that he would consider “reinvigorating” the task force established by the Justice Department in the Obama administration to look at agricultural market concentration and perhaps involve other agencies.
Responding to Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Vilsack said he believes forest maintenance should be included in infrastructure discussions along with roads and bridges.
Vilsack told Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, that he believes participation in the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children can be increased through a campaign to make people more aware of the program.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., complained that the Farmers to Families Food Box program hadn’t worked because the food arrived late and wasn’t local. Vilsack said he believes the program could be improved to encourage local agriculture.
At Grassley’s request, Vilsack promised to take another look at the definition of “actively engaged” farmers that the Trump administration put forward.
Vilsack told Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., that for ecosystem markets to work there has to be quantification.
He told Fischer that proving American foods are produced sustainably is a new case to make in international markets. If the United States can achieve Biden’s vision of an agriculture system with zero emissions by 2050, that will “provide a market advantage” in selling products overseas.
But to achieve zero emissions, innovation will be necessary and much of it can come from land grants schools, which are a “gift” from the era of Abraham Lincoln.
He told Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., that to improve credit programs for rural minorities it will be necessary to identify the barriers.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., urged Vilsack to reform dairy pricing. Farmers should get more benefit from the value of dairy exports, said Vilsack, who has been the CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Gillibrand responded that the regional cost of production needs to be taken into consideration.
Governors, Vilsack said, “need to be engaged personally” in the administration of nutrition programs.
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