Obama’s Longest-Serving Cabinet Member Confirmed To Biden’s Cabinet

Pres Biden's pick for Agriculture Secretary was opposed by Bernie Sanders, several progressive groups, black farmers, and environmental leaders.
Tom Vilsack, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, listens during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 30, 2019.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Senate has voted 92-7 to approve Tom Vilsack as President Joe Biden’s Agriculture secretary, the eighth confirmed Cabinet member of the new administration.

“After an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, Secretary Vilsack is officially confirmed,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “I look forward to partnering with him to address the COVID-19 pandemic for our farmers, feed families in need, curb the climate crises, and address racial discrimination in agriculture.”

Vilsack, 70, returns to the same position he held during the Obama administration, a role he filled for eight years as the former president’s longest-serving Cabinet member. He had previously gained extensive knowledge of the agriculture industry as a two-term governor of Iowa from 1999-2007.

The longtime Biden supporter takes over a USDA with 29 agencies and almost 100,000 employees. The department supports farmers and ranchers, funds food-aid services like school meals, and develops federal policy on natural resources, food safety, rural development, nutrition, and works to end hunger.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, voted against Vilsack’s confirmation, reportedly saying: “I like Tom, and I’ve known him for years. But I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture.”

Republican Senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (MO), Rand Paul (KY), Marco Rubio (FL), Dan Sullivan (AK), and Rick Scott (FL) also voted against Vilsack.

Several progressive groups, black farmers, and environmental leaders opposed Vilsack’s nomination, questioning whether his approval would result in a continuation of his performance during the Obama presidency.

“It’s not lost on me, ironically, that this is Groundhog Day, and I realize that I’m back again,” Vilsack joked at his confirmation hearing earlier this month, referencing a 1993 comedy film starring Bill Murray as a man trapped in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over.

Some of Vilsack’s critics say he has been beholden to corporate agriculture giants throughout his political career. Others accuse him of failing to address systemic racism within the department when he had the chance. They point out that weeks after Vilsack vacated his Cabinet position in January 2017, he started a job at a Big Dairy non-profit, where he has worked ever since.

As president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), Vilsack became the highest-paid executive of its parent company, Dairy Management Inc, in his first full year of employment. He was paid almost $1 million in 2018, an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found.

USDEC, a Dairy Management subsidiary, is primarily funded by dairy farmers that are mandated to pay into a federal checkoff program, which Vilsack will once again oversee during his second run as agriculture secretary. Congress requires dairy farmers to support a “dairy checkoff” fund used to promote and market the dairy industry. The Journal Sentinel report found Dairy Management received more than $150 million from the checkoff program in both 2017 and 2018.

According to its website, USDEC is an “independent membership organization that represents the global trade interests of U.S. dairy producers, propriety processors and cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders.”

“Pulling Tom Vilsack directly from the dairy lobby to the agency meant to regulate that industry would be disastrous for the climate,” Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club. “The U.S. needs a secure, just, and climate-friendly food system, not an agency chief who will continue business-as-usual while the climate crisis grows.”

However, The Washington Post reported that Vilsack’s confirmation hearing “was hardly a recapitulation of discussions from a decade ago.” According to The Post, it had been “full of references to climate change, greenhouse gas mitigation and carbon credit programs, and lessons learned from the pandemic about the vulnerabilities of our food system.”

During the hearing, in which Vilsack appeared virtually, he acknowledged “that this is a fundamentally different time,” adding, “I am a different person, and it is a different department.”

“Agriculture is one of our first and best ways to get some wins in this climate area,” he continued.

Vilsack said he wants to use funds from the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation, a program that reportedly receives up to $30 billion in annual funding, to fight climate change.

According to CBS News, Vilsack pledged to “spur the industry” on biofuels, proposed “building a rural economy based on biomanufacturing” and “turning agricultural waste into a variety of products.”

Vilsack also mentioned establishing an “equity task force” to review USDA programs “and identify if there’s systemic racism…and intentional and unintentional barriers.” The idea aligns with an executive order President Biden signed on his first day in office to use the federal government to advance racial equity.

“We need to fully, deeply and completely address the longstanding inequities, unfairness and discrimination that has been the history of USDA programs for far too long,” Vilsack said.

The Associated Press reports:

Some Black farmers fault Vilsack for failing to adequately address a backlog of discrimination complaints that predated his arrival at the department in 2009, and they say he should have hired more minorities to high-level positions.

There’s also lingering bitterness about Vilsack’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, a Black woman who served as USDA’s Georgia director of rural development. Vilsack fired her in 2010 after a conservative blogger posted an edited video of her supposedly making racist remarks, but he asked her to return when the full video surfaced showing that she was taken out of context. Sherrod declined the offer to come back.

“We have already seen what Vilsack is going to do. We don’t have a prayer if he gets in there,” said Rod Bradshaw, a 67-year-old Black farmer who raises wheat, cattle and milo on 2,000 acres near Jetmore, Kansas.

Some Black farmers want Biden to sign an executive order they drafted halting foreclosures on Black-owned farms and making other civil rights reforms.

One black farmer told the AP that Vilsack “got a pass” during the Obama administration.

After Vilsack’s confirmation hearing, newly-elected Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) were appointed to the Senate Agriculture Committee. They are the second and third African-Americans to serve on that panel in its history.

Both lawmakers recently introduced bills they say are aimed at addressing institutional racism within the USDA. Warnock’s proposal would provide direct payments to farmers of color. Meanwhile, Booker reintroduced legislation intended to correct alleged historical discrimination the USDA has exhibited toward generations of black farmers.

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