20 December 2009 - Congratulations, Tom Vilsack

Let me begin by offering my congratulations to Tom Vilsack on being appointed Secretary of Agriculture by President-elect Obama. That’s three in a row for Governors in that position. Mike Johanns was the Governor of Nebraska; Ed Schafer served as Governor of North Dakota and Tom Vilsack served as Governor of Iowa from 1998 to 2006.

At the same time though, I might also offer my sympathy because Mr. Vilsack is facing a challenging job. I vividly remember back in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected President and, as he looked over a list of eligible candidates for Secretary of Agriculture, my name was on that list; I might say far down the list, however. When I learned of it, I called my friend, former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and said “Earl, what do you think?” “Well”, he said “Let me tell you if you become Secretary, fifty percent of the people in the country will love you; 50% will hate you. John Block was named Secretary, but I have never forgotten Earl’s words.

It didn’t take long for the detractors to make their objections to the appointment public. Andrew Leonard who writes the “How the World Works” column stated his feelings in newspapers across the country the day after the appointment was announced.

Under the headline VILSACK WILL BE BIG AGRICULTURE’S MAN IN THE WHITE HOUSE, he wrote “Barack Obama’s nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for secretary of agriculture poses an interesting challenge to food policy progressives and environmentalists. It’s likely that some of the same people who applauded the nomination of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as secretary of energy because it signaled a return of respect for science in the White House, will be disappointed with Vilsack because of his own fondness for science - that is biotechnology. Make no mistake, the biotechnology industry and big agribusiness corporations are mighty pleased with the prospect of Vilsack as ag secretary.” And that is just the start, as Tom Vilsack takes over the federal agency and its budget that was born in the Abraham Lincoln administration.

Speaking of that budget, I think it’s important for the new Secretary to constantly remind the critics of “big spending” on agriculture that two-thirds of the annual USDA budget goes to provide food assistance programs for people in need; leaving just one-third for all of the programs from research to forest service to conservation and everything in-between for the people in production agriculture. These are the people who put food on our table, clothes on our back, a roof over our heads and now, energy in our gas tank. Let us never forget that.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez.