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Biden Plans To Bring Vilsack Back To USDA Despite Criticism From Reformers

Tom Vilsack served as secretary of agriculture during the Obama administration and has been a trusted adviser to President-elect Joe Biden.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Tom Vilsack served as secretary of agriculture during the Obama administration and has been a trusted adviser to President-elect Joe Biden.

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Obama Cabinet veteran and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, a source familiar with transition discussions confirmed to NPR.

Vilsack returns to an agency he helmed for eight years as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is best known for supporting farmers but actually has a much greater impact on the country through its funding of food aid programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and school meals. The USDA estimates that 1 in 4 Americans takes advantage of at least one of these food programs during a typical year.

Vilsack became the safe, comfortable choice for Biden after competition for the USDA job set off a battle between two wings of the Democratic Party.

Traditional farm lobby groups had rallied behind former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, while reformers, who want the USDA to spend its money fighting hunger and climate change, pushed for Rep. Marcia Fudge from Cleveland. Biden has now named Fudge as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the first Black woman to head the agency since the 1970s.

If Biden hoped that the two camps both would welcome Vilsack's return, he's likely to be disappointed. Vilsack is currently chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, an organization backed by the dairy industry.

Advocates seeking to reform USDA to better assist low-income Americans have said a Vilsack nomination would strengthen a status quo they say favors large corporate farm interests.

"Vilsack has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants — some of whom he has gone to work for," said Mitch Jones, policy director for Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

Ricardo Salvador, director of food and environment for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says Vilsack "handled an impossible job well" in his previous tenure at the USDA. But Salvador says the situation now demands someone new. "If we measure what we need against what he accomplished, he falls short," Salvador says.

Vilsack grew up in Pittsburgh and was trained as a lawyer but became acquainted with agriculture as Iowa's governor from 1999 to 2007.

He takes over a department that traditionally has been focused on the well-being of farmers. Sonny Perdue, the current secretary, referred to farmers as the department's "customers" and told the department's employees that "our mission is to provide our farmers, ranchers, foresters and producers with what they need, when they need it."

Over the past two years, as farmers coped with the impact of the Trump administration's trade war and the coronavirus, Perdue's department sent them a record-breaking flood of government aid. In 2020 alone, direct federal payments to farmers are expected to reach $46 billion, far exceeding the amount of farm subsidies in any previous year.

Perdue was less enthusiastic about other parts of the USDA, including SNAP and school meals, which feed millions of low-income Americans. Perdue tried to restrict SNAP benefits to non-disabled adults without dependents, although that move was put on hold when the pandemic hit.

Perdue's USDA also downplayed research devoted to climate change. Two of the department's leading research groups were ordered to move from Washington, D.C., to new offices in Kansas City, ostensibly to promote closer contact with the department's "stakeholders." Most of the staff of those agencies resigned, rather than accepting the move, which one White House official suggested was a welcome outcome.

Some are now calling for a U-turn in the department's priorities, saying that the USDA could become a prime sponsor of action on climate change. That's partly because the agency has money to spend. Its budget already includes billions of dollars for programs that can be used to pay for solar and wind power in rural areas, or for agricultural practices that capture carbon dioxide from the air.

The USDA also has a multibillion-dollar pot of money, called the Commodity Credit Corp., which the Trump administration used as a funding vehicle for its payments to farmers. The head of Biden's USDA transition team, Robert Bonnie, has called for converting the CCC into a "carbon bank" that would pay farmers for practices that limit greenhouse emissions.

In addition, the USDA runs the U.S. Forest Service, which manages almost 200 million acres of land across the country. The Forest Service often gets lost within the USDA, but that could change as forests grow more vulnerable to a warming, fire-prone climate. The Forest Service is facing calls to manage that land more aggressively, carrying out more frequent prescribed burns to reduce the chances of catastrophic wildfires. It could also boost reforestation funding, in part to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow down climate change.

Cabinet officials rarely return to the same job in a different administration, but it's happened before. James "Tama Jim" Wilson, a Scottish immigrant who settled in Iowa, held the agriculture post for 16 years, from 1897 to 1913, under Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

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Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.