Who Will Be The Next Secretary of Agriculture?

Now that the Obama transition team has been announced, a farm broadcaster’s thoughts turn toward who might next lead the United States Department of Agriculture, a cabinet position leading the largest bureaucracy in federal government (that’s not a slam in this context, by the way, just recitation of trivia). The USDA arguably touches more Americans than any other single department or administration (aside, of course, from the Internal Revenue Service), providing far more than just the oft-maligned farm subsidies we hear such hue and cry over every five or so years when the Farm Bill is up for bids.


In my research of this very important question, the name Tom Vilsack pops up quite a bit. Google any phrase including the words “Obama” and “Secretary of Agriculture” and you’ll find the former Iowa governor mentioned in almost every story. This, in my opinion, is the prime reason Governor Vilsack will not be the next Secretary of Agriculture. In each of the last two picks for USDA Secretary, albeit under a totally different administration, the conventional wisdom on the pick was so wrong as to be almost humorous. When then Governor (and now Senator-elect) Mike Johanns was named Secretary in 2005, it was widely assumed and reported that Missouri Farm Bureau President Charlie Kruse would get the job; due to family tragedy, that didn’t happen as Kruse reportedly withdrew from consideration. In 2007, when Secretary Johanns stepped down to ponder his run for the United States Senate, literally no one in agricultural journalism suggested, considered, or even daydreamed about businessman and former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer. Chuck Connor, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and former Bush White House staffer was assumed to be next in line for the job. Presumed bad blood between Conner and Senate Ag Committee Democrats may have forced the swap.


So, whom do I think will get the job? Two others rumored to be in the hunting are National Farmers Union President Tom Buis and South Dakota Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Blue Dog who sits on the House Ag Committee. Buis is one that we’ve long considered a top draft pick for this position. He’s extremely likable, well-spoken, ambitious without being overpretentious, and most importantly, well-connected among the Democratic elite. His close personal tie to Obama adviser and former Senate Democrat Leader Tom Daschle bodes well for the NFU Chief. It is also worth noting that Buis scored something of a coup when he secured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the keynote address of the 2007 NFU Convention. He’s also one of the few people I’ve ever heard successfully (more or less) spin Nancy Pelosi as a big supporter of agriculture. Buis’ biggest drawback might simply be that his reputation doesn’t have any politics in it, and Obama is at his core a poltical guy.


I mention Sandlin only because her name has popped up a few times in my research, and perhaps because she is the least obvious pick to have surfaced. With her own Farmers Union credentials, Sandlin might appease the Blue Dogs in Congress who fear Obama, Pelosi, and Reid will attempt to shove the country to the left, might give Obama more male/female balance on the cabinet (there are far more men rumored to be near the top of the cabinet short lists than women), and might give him even more touch with the House (as a sitting Senator, he’s already a member of the club, and will have no trouble massaging his agenda in the upper chamber). The pick of Congressman Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff suggests that the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill is extremely important to President-Elect Obama. Given the scrappy nature of relations between current Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Conner and the Congress, selecting a sitting Member to head the Department might not be a bad move.


Also in the realm of USDA trivia, it is worth noting that President George W. Bush has achieved a first in his tenure: he is the first President to have three Secretaries of Agriculture. While it has become fairly common in recent decades for the Commander In Chief to have two USDA Chiefs during an eight year tenure, typically at least one of them has served the bulk of the President’s term. Secretary Veneman left after an extremely successful tenure and was almost immediately named Executive Director at UNICEF, and as I previously mentioned, Secretary Johanns left to run for the United States Senate.


Now, since I mentioned Ann Veneman, it is entirely plausible that President-Elect Obama might consider the former USDA Chief for another tenure at USDA. She presided over one of the most challenging periods in the history of the Department, focusing on trade expansion, infrastructure enhancement, conservation and the environment, rural communities, nutrition and food assistance, and USDA program integration issues, all while dealing with an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in Europe, and most notably while handling the extremely difficult BSE situation of Christmas 2003. Veneman is a potential candidate on my list simply because she was widely rumored to be a short-lister for the Vice Presidency eventually offered to Senator Biden. Veneman was also never a Washington insider, and given that Obama’s closest allies are either beltway elites or Chicago machinists, a Californian might again offer some more balance to the Cabinet.


It is presumed that Obama will make these selections rather quickly, so it is entirely possible that these suggestions will be worth the paper they’re printed on before this post even makes its way to the archives. We’ll talk more then.


Update: One of my sources and friends at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s policy shop tells me she’s hearing talk of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. All of the rationale I shared in regard to Congresswoman Sandlin earlier would apply here: Peterson is a Blue Dog, more practical than ideological, serious agricultural credibility, and and the obvious rationale of tightening up relations with the House. I like Peterson and how he’s handled the Farm Bill navigations, and would think his selection as Ag Secretary would make a lot of sense for Obama. I also heard someone mention Republican (some would say in name only) Senator Chuck Hagel would also be a candidate, though I think this is a real long shot.


Update Again… Chuck suggests a candidate I’ve neither heard mentioned, nor considered myself… It would certainly be an entertaining USDA selection…