Easily winning confirmation Tuesday for a return engagement as the U.S. Agriculture Secretary, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack rejoins a sprawling government agency he says this time around will add increasing renewable energy and addressing food insecurity to its priorities.
Vilsack was the first Democrat in 30 years to claim the state’s governorship when he won the first of two terms in 1998. He later became the federal ag secretary in the Obama administration for eight years.
The U.S. Senate voted 92-7 Tuesday to return him to the job in the Biden administration, though Vilsack said the job has changed remarkably since he held it last.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to contain the pandemic, transform America’s food system, create fairer markets for producers, ensure equity and root out systemic barriers, develop new income opportunities with climate smart practices, increase access to healthy and nutritious food, and make historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy in rural America,” he said in a statement.
In testimony earlier this month to a Senate committee, Vilsack, 70, heavily endorsed boosting climate-friendly agricultural industries such as the creation of biofuels, saying, “Agriculture is one of our first and best ways to get some wins” on climate change.
He proposed “building a rural economy based on biomanufacturing” and “turning agricultural waste into a variety of products.” Vilsack also pledged to work closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to “spur the industry.”
The vow helped cement support for the Democrat from Iowa’s Republican senators — although it came with some words of warning.
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“If Secretary Vilsack decides to give into the liberal Left — their policies that would hurt animal agriculture and devastate our biofuel industry and the RFS — Iowans will remember,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said in a statement, “I expect Mr. Vilsack to do the right thing for farm country, and I will certainly hold him to that.”
Speaking on the Senate floor, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley lauded him and noted: “I know Secretary Vilsack will continue to work for the family farmers and spotlight their contributions to agriculture and society.”
Although farmers strongly supported President Donald Trump — he handily carried the vote in Iowa for election and in his re-election bid — agriculture interests were furious at the Trump administration for granting waivers from the nation’s Renewable Fuel Standard.
The waivers meant the oil refineries that got them were exempted from complying with requirement they blend corn-based and soybean-based products in with fuel supplies.
Tuesday, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association called Vilsack “a strong champion for ethanol and biodiesel.”
Leading up to the 2020 Iowa caucuses, Vilsack hit the campaign trail in the state to support Biden. But even with Vilsack’s popularity among Democrats, Biden fared badly — coming in fourth, and raising questions at the time whether his campaign could ever recover from the defeat.
While Biden referred to Vilsack as the best U.S. ag secretary ever, the nominee came under criticism from civil rights advocates for not going far enough to support Black farmers or eradicate racial discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In his floor speech, Republican Grassley defended the Democrat’s social justice record.
“While there aren’t many Black farmers in Iowa, my state has a long history of fighting against oppression of African Americans dating back to the Underground Railroad,” he said. “There’s no reason to stop that trend.”
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Vilsack has said he would create an “equity task force” inside the department. Its job, he said, would be to identify what he called “intentional or unintentional barriers” that prevent or discourage farmers of color from properly accessing federal assistance programs.
Vilsack now will head the USDA at a time of rising food insecurity because of the pandemic.
An estimated 50 million Americans are food insecure and food banks and pantries nationwide are running low on food.
He also will face demands to provide assistance to farmers after the Biden administration held up $2.3 billion in aid for farmers that had been approved by the Trump administration.
Vilsack said during his earlier confirmation hearing he will prioritize food assistance programs such as SNAP — food stamps — and WIC.
“The USDA needs to do a better job of educating people about the existence of these programs,” he said then. “It’s important to get state and local leaders involved in this as well, and that we make access to these programs more convenient.”
Vilsack spoke at the confirmation hearing of expanding farm-to-school or -prison programs, financing food hubs, expanding commitments to farmers markets and making sure food banks have the infrastructure needed to collect and store perishable food products.
The seven senators voting against Vilsack’s confirmation included six Republicans — Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida and Dan Sullivan of Alaska — and also Bernie Sanders.
The independent from Vermont said later that Vilsack would “be fine” but he would have liked “somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture.”
The Associated Press, the Washington Post and The Gazette staff contributed to this report.