Already the second-longest-serving U.S. secretary of agriculture, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack began an unprecedented return engagement Tuesday as the Senate confirmed his nomination to the post in the Biden administration.
The 92-7 vote places Vilsack back in the office he occupied from 2009 to 2017 under then-President Barack Obama. U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Iowa Republicans, voted for Vilsack’s confirmation.
Vilsack’s “deep knowledge of agriculture and rural America is needed now more than ever,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, said Tuesday before the Senate voted. “Our farmers, our families, our rural communities have so many challenges right now.”
Jeff Jorgenson, president of the Iowa Soybean Association board, said Tuesday that Vilsack’s confirmation “bodes well” for Iowa farmers. “The former Iowa governor’s return to USDA gives Iowa farmers and rural communities a strong tie to the nation’s capital and voice in the future of farm policy,” the Sidney, Iowa, farmer said in a statement.
Senators voting no were Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who has objected to Vilsack’s corporate ties; and Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, did not vote.
Sanders told reporters at the Capitol he likes Vilsack but “I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous, in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture.”
But Sanders acknowledged Vilsack would probably be “fine” on the issue, if not as strong as he’d like.
Vilsack returns to the office he occupied from 2009 to 2017 under then-President Barack Obama.
He said in a statement that he’s grateful for the support he received from President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and the Senate. “We’re going to be a USDA that represents and serves all Americans,” Vilsack said.
“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.
Ernst said Vilsack is well qualified for the job, but raised concerns — as she did in his Feb. 2 confirmation hearing — about the Biden administration’s position on ethanol and biodiesel, given the president’s plan to shift the nation to electric vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Iowa is the nation’s top producer of ethanol.
Vilsack “must be a strong and loud advocate for Iowa farmers, the biofuel community, and rural America as a whole when helping create and implement the new administration’s agenda,” Ernst said.
Vilsack has said the nation will need ethanol and biodiesel “in the foreseeable future” as the U.S. moves to electric vehicles.
In his cofirmation hearing, he told Senate agriculture committee members that he would return to lead the 70,000-employee, $146-billion-a-year agency with the understanding “it’s a fundamentally different time.”
“I am a different person. And it is a different department,” Vilsack said.
He said the nation faces immediate challenges from the coronavirus public health crisis, including getting food to hungry Americans, protecting frontline meatpacking and farm workers, and rebuilding the U.S. economy from its pandemic-induced recession.
But the 70-year-old Waukee resident also said the nation can reach ambitious goals: Farmers can lead in the fight against climate change; the agriculture department can address systemic…