Transcript: Tom Vilsack Confirmation Hearing

CQ Transcripts Wire
January 14, 2009

SEN. TOM HARKIN (D-IOWA): Forestry will come to order. Well, this morning it is a distinct honor of mine to hold this hearing of this committee to consider the nomination of Thomas J. Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, to become secretary of agriculture. I want to welcome you to the committee, Governor Vilsack, along with your wife, Christie, our former first lady, and a good number of Iowans and others who are here to support you and wish you well.

The secretary of agriculture is a job with far-reaching responsibilities and influence. Although it is often overlooked, all Americans and many millions more around the world lead better lives each day because of the capable efforts of the people who make up the Department of Agriculture. Nothing is more basic to human sustenance than a safe and affordable and plentiful supply of nutritious food. Our nation is blessed to have the people, the resources and the technology to form a system stretching from family farms to family dining tables that allows most of us to take food pretty much for granted. This level of food security has been possible for only a very small slice of human history and is still out of reach for far too many of the world's inhabitants, some right here in our own country.

The secretary of agriculture has a fundamental responsibility to foster a dependable and sustainable food and agricultural system and to provide nutrition assistance to millions of Americans in need. We also rely on farms and ranches and forests for the fiber and the timber and, increasingly, renewable forms of energy, which are key elements of economic way of life. Rural America contributes greatly to our nation's wealth, not only by supplying food and other resources, but also through a highly productive and dedicated workforce. Yet too often, the citizens of small towns and rural communities do not share in the wealth that they help to generate. And so another crucial role of the secretary of agriculture is as a champion of rural communities, dedicated to helping them succeed economically and to obtain the necessary elements for a better way of life.

The new secretary of agriculture faces stiff challenges, many of them of course made harder by the economic downturn and yet there are solid reasons to hope and work for positive change. The rural economy and rural businesses are suffering, including in agriculture, where producers are once again in a cost-price squeeze, compounded by tighter credit. Yet our basics assets in agriculture and rural America are the envy of most of the world. Job losses and economic hardship will drive the need for nutrition assistance to record levels across America, rural and urban, and will strain USDA and state agencies to deliver this critically important help to families.

The new farm bill strengthen this assistance, as will the, hopefully, economic recovery legislation. At the same time, in the child nutrition assistance programs that we have to reauthorize this year, we have a tremendous opportunity to help reform America's health system, save lives, control healthcare costs. If we make sure that foods and beverages that kids consume in schools are more nutritious and healthier and properly balanced, we'll prevent diseases and medical conditions that impair and cut short lives and cost a lot of money to treat. We will need the leadership and help of the secretary of agriculture and USDA in writing this legislation. We have a huge challenge to conserve national resources. In the face of a growing world population and demand for commodities and raw materials farms and forests will be pushed for even greater outputs. Doing so sustainably will require a much greater commitment to conservation practices on land that's in production to the Conservation Stewardship Program and similar initiatives.

In renewable energy and other areas, we can and we must create and develop new opportunities in rural America, for example, for beginning farmers and in small and startup businesses. Producing livestock and poultry is vital to rural economies and it's essential that markets in this industry are competitive and fair. The demand for locally grown and organic foods continues to grow, the fastest growing part of our food chain, providing new and expanding opportunities, again, in rural communities. USDA's food safety and inspection system needs strengthening, yet the progress that has been made shows that the system can be improved.

With the number of hungry people in the world now reaching nearly one billion we must instill hope by investing more in food and agriculture research and helping developing countries improve agricultural productivity so they'll be better able to feed themselves. And among the most intractable challenges facing the new secretary of agriculture is the intolerable and inexcusable state of civil rights in USDA's agricultural programs and for USDA employees. It is essential that we find ways to work together to turn this situation around once and for all.

So it is now my privilege to introduce, taking off my chairman's hat, just now as a member of the committee and as an Iowan, to introduce to the, along with my colleague from Iowa, Senator Grassley, our governor, Tom Vilsack, President-Elect Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of agriculture. I can tell you from my long history with Tom Vilsack, he knows production agriculture, what's needed to promote profitability and a better future, including for beginning farmers and ranchers. He gained a lot of experience the hard way, representing farmers in wrenching financial situations, as a county seat lawyer during the farm crisis of the 1980s, which was the first time we ever met.

As the mayor of Mount Pleasant and as a state senator, he gained valuable experience and insights into the problems and needs and opportunities in our small rural communities. As a governor, Tom Vilsack built a strong record in promoting renewable energy, rural economic opportunity and conservation. He knows how to bring change that will help to strengthen and rebuild the farm and rural economy on a sound foundation. He has a proven record of working with all sides to seek the right resolution to environmental issues. He is solidly committed to better nutrition and providing food assistance to those who need it. He created the Iowa Food Policy Council to address the range of interlinked food and agricultural issues.

Tom Vilsack's experience, his abilities, his dedication, his relish for hard work will serve him well in our nation, very well as secretary of agriculture and will also serve him very well that he has, as his wife and companion, Christie Vilsack, our former first lady, a teacher who made a great name for herself all over Iowa by promoting reading in young children and promoting our libraries and our book system in the state of Iowa, just did a tremendous job in the state of Iowa.

So again, Governor, we welcome you to the committee. We look forward to your testimony. I will turn to our ranking member, Senator Chambliss, and then to Senator Grassley for last purpose of introduction.

Senator Chambliss.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R-Ga.): Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and first of all, let me just say that I look forward to another productive and cooperative year with you and congratulations again on being chairman of this committee and you've been a great partner. And we had some difficult tasks last year, but with your leadership, we were successful in getting a farm bill passed and I congratulate you once again on that also and look forward to this year.

HARKIN: Thank you.

CHAMBLISS: And certainly, Mr. Chairman, I'm glad to attend this important hearing this morning to consider the nomination of Governor Tom Vilsack for the position of secretary of agriculture. With all the recent turmoil affecting every segment of our economy, I understand that the president-elect would like to have his cabinet in place as soon as possible. I look forward to reporting the nomination out of committee and quickly approving a nomination on the Senate floor. A swift confirmation will ensure that the department of agriculture has the necessary leadership to fulfill its mission on behalf of the American people.

overnor Vilsack, I congratulate you on your nomination, welcome you and your wife, Christie, to the Senate agriculture committee and I'm very pleased, Christie, to hear that you are a former teacher and my wife also taught school for 30 years in the public school systems in our state, so it's a special talent you have and we certainly, again, welcome you to the committee. Hope your visit today will be short, yet productive. I'm certain that today is a proud day for you, your family and the entire state of Iowa.

I would note that, upon your confirmation, Iowa agriculture is certainly going to be well-represented in both branches of government. Along with Senator Harkin's chairmanship of the Senate agriculture committee and Senator Grassley's leadership on the finance committee, as well as serving in the minority on this committee, it's difficult to imagine a scenario where corn, soy beans and livestock won't be ably represented. As we discussed in our meeting in my office in the last few days, I know that you're eager to broaden your portfolio to represent our southern commodities as well, commodities such as poultry, cotton and peanuts and that you desire to represent the entire U.S. agriculture sector and certainly not just one section of the country.

As every member of the Senate committee on agriculture well knows, the position of secretary is critically important, not only to America's agriculture producers, but to every U.S. citizen that consumes the products that our farmers produce. From overseeing the major commodity and conservation programs, to administering the food and nutrition programs, the secretary of agriculture touches almost every sector of our society. Our most basic strength as a nation resides in our ability to produce a safe, abundant and affordable food supply. We are blessed that we can share this bounty, not only with our citizens, but with all the world as well.

As with all sectors of the economy, American agriculture is experiencing very difficult times. Even though our farmers and ranchers earlier generally enjoyed higher prices, these were coupled with rising input costs. Unfortunately many of them, particularly cotton producers, never experienced the high prices. They encountered the double misfortune of low prices and high input costs. In today's uncertain economic climate, USDA must closely monitor our production sector and ensure that any legislative priorities treat all areas of the country fairly, so that they may therefore enjoy broad congressional support. As you know, the United States Congress overwhelmingly approved the 2008 Farm Bill. Two presidential vetoes had to be overridden to enact this law and such broad support of farm policy is unprecedented in the Senate's long history.

Although the current administration began the implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill, now it will be your responsibility to complete the job. It is our hope to continue the important business of working with the department to implement the law. Again, as we discussed in our meeting, sometimes the department needs assistance in that regard in order to fully understand congressional intent to preserve the delicate balances of the 2008 Farm Bill. The fact that the president- elect nominated you speaks to your high level of qualification to implement such an important piece of legislation.

I know that you bring to Washington a great deal of experience as secretary of agriculture. You served two terms as the governor of Iowa, where according to a 2005 Iowa State University study; farm and farm-related employment make up 20 percent of the workforce of your state. Much like my home state of Georgia, agriculture is the backbone of Iowa's economy. Whether it was encouraging energy security through the advancement of renewable biofuels or ensuring that we remain leaders in agricultural science and technology by advancing biotechnology issues, you served your state admirably as governor and will no doubt bring those same qualities to USDA.

In addition to implementing the farm bill, the secretary must represent the interests of American agriculture in negotiation of free trade agreements, work tirelessly to further open markets to our agriculture products, support international economic development through the provision of food aid, lead land conservation efforts and expand job opportunities for our citizens in rural America. As the founder and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership, you have a unique perspective and I hope will invest a significant amount of your time to resolve our biotechnology issues with our trading partners.

As you're aware, many of these issues have persisted, in spite of scientific vindication and favorable decisions in the World Trade Organization. I'm optimistic that you are the right man to take on these challenges. Governor, I look forward to working with you and I urge my colleagues to favorably report your nomination out of committee and approve it on the Senate floor as soon as possible.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

HARKIN: Thank you very much, Senator Chambliss, and let me repay your kind remarks by again welcoming you back to the committee as ranking member. Well, I didn't mean it that way. I meant to welcome you back, I mean as ranking member. Of course, I'd rather be chairman than ranking member any time, but we've had a ...

CHAMBLISS: Do you want to swap or what?

HARKIN: We've had a great partnership and I look forward that to continuing, especially with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Bill this year and all the other things you mentioned, so it's been great working with you and look forward to another productive couple years here. Thank you very much, Saxby.

Now I yield to my friend, my colleague from Iowa, Senator Grassley, for final purposes of introduction.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R-IOWA): Good morning, everybody, and thank you, Mr. Chairman and Senator Chambliss.

A very special welcome to Governor Vilsack and his wife, Christie, to the Senate agriculture committee. They're a great political team. Mrs. Vilsack is a policy person in her own right, so it's a very strong team coming to town to do the work of advancing our country. I'm so pleased to see that one of the president-elect's cabinet nominations is an Iowan and I want to personally congratulate you, as I have a couple times privately, for your nomination and welcome you to Washington. I think the committee is very fortunate to have someone appointed to be secretary of agriculture, as Governor Vilsack is. He's been around agriculture and the family farm, as mayor of a small town, as a state senator and governor of Iowa and all of this is going to be a tremendous benefit to agriculture generally, but particularly to the institution of the family farm. When Governor Vilsack was elected mayor of Mount Pleasant, he inherited a rural community that was suffering the effects of farm credit crisis of the 1980s. He witnessed firsthand how farm crisis became not just a farm crisis, but a rural crisis. This experience will be extremely beneficial as he assumes the role of secretary during a time of price volatility, exceedingly increasing input costs and undetermined amounts of risk. I also look forward to your swift and speedy confirmation.

Many of us in the Senate have worked hard in years to pass legislation to help restore competition in livestock markets and to make sure that marketing and production contracts that farmers sign with packers and livestock integrators are, in fact, fair contracts. We made some real progress in this regard by including important changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act to protect farmers from abusive contracts terms. For a long time on this issue, I've worked with my colleagues, Senator Feingold, Senator Harkin and others to make sure that livestock and poultry farmers can't be forced to sign away their rights through mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts. In the 2008 Farm Bill, we finally included a provision to require that farmers be given a clear choice upfront in their contract about whether or not they want to use arbitration to resolve disputes.

I would also note that the 2008 Farm Bill requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do a rule-making to define the Packers and Stockyards Act prohibition against, quote, unquote, "undue and unreasonable preferences," in which meatpackers, swine contractors and poultry dealers favor larger volume producers over smaller volume producers. I want to advance this important rule-making as quickly as possible, as it represents one of the most important immediate steps that can be taken to restore a fair and more competitive marketplace.

I've also been a strong supporter of crop insurance. Iowa leads the nation with the most crop insurance companies headquartered in our state and a very high participation and purchase of revenue policies. Crop insurance is a vital risk management tool and has helped Iowa farmers recover from devastating floods last year and is helping farmers cover losses from steep declining commodity prices. Revenue claims are still being worked on in Iowa for last year, but I look forward to working with the new secretary to strengthen and improve this vital risk management tool for our farmers.

I'll make just a quick comment about an issue that I've worked on for years and you already know my interest in this, Governor. Payment limits are going to continue to be at the top of my agricultural agenda, although the farm bill has been signed now for a five-year period of time. So I want to offer an open door to my office in the future to discuss this issue and I'm glad to hear of anything you have to say about it. As governor, renewable homegrown energy was at the forefront during your tenure as governor. I'm excited to work with you and the department to further promote alternative fuels and focus on the commercial viability of advanced biofuels, the next generation. With contributions to green jobs and a cleaner environment, renewable energy will help decrease our dependence on foreign oil and keep that money here in the United States.

Finally, as you know well, U.S. agriculture is dependent upon access to foreign markets. I hope to work with you during this Congress to pass implementing legislation bills for our pending trade agreements that will help level the playing field for U.S. farm exports. Once again, congratulations to you, Governor, and to Mrs. Vilsack. Thank you.

HARKIN: Thank you very much, Senator Grassley.

Governor Vilsack, I have two things I have to do. First of all, to administer an oath we have to do for all nominees, please stand and raise your right hand. Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you're about to provide is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God?

Thank you very much. And secondly, Governor, do you agree that, if confirmed, you will appear before any duly constituted committee of Congress if asked to appear? Thank you very much.

Well, Governor Vilsack, again, welcome. I just couldn't be more proud than to sit here this morning and to see you there and to contemplate your being the next secretary of agriculture. I've admired your work for so many years in Iowa, as I said, going back to 1980s, your leadership as governor. I don't think President-Elect Obama could have picked a better person for this position. So welcome and, again, your testimony will be made a part of the record in its entirety and you may proceed as you so desire.

FORMER IOWA GOV. TOM VILSACK (D): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, Senator Chambliss and members of the committee of agriculture, nutrition and forestry, for the opportunity and privilege to appear before you today. I particularly want to thank my fellow Iowans, the chairman, Tom Harkin and Senator Grassley, for their kind introduction and, Senator Chambliss, for your kind remarks as well. I have long admired your work and service to our state and to our country and I appreciate your kind words today.

I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and to introduce to the committee and to proudly thank my best friend and life partner, Christie Vilsack, who joins me today, as she has during every step of my public life, as the mayor of Mount Pleasant, as the state senator and as the governor of the great state.

(APPLAUSE)

VILSACK: Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, it is a great honor and privilege to be nominated by President-Elect Barack Obama to lead the Department of Agriculture at this crucial time. The last Iowan asked to serve as secretary of agriculture was Henry Wallace. He served with extraordinary distinction during a period of historic challenge. And I am mindful of the high standard he set, the reforms he initiated and the deep compassion he had for those who work our lands.

Today, our country and the department of agriculture again face historic challenges. Farmers and ranchers experience volatile markets, while credit tightens. Small towns and rural communities across the country continue to lose people and jobs, while critical infrastructure crumbles. These towns and communities find it extremely difficult and increasingly difficult to keep pace with an ever-changing national and global economy. Recent economic woes caused a dramatic increase in the number of Americans needing the food assistance programs under USDA jurisdiction. The nation looks to our rural areas for a sustainable source of food and energy, at the same time the world looks to America for leadership in combating global climate change. The healthcare crisis aligns squarely with the need to promote more nutrition in our diets.

All of this is happening while the world population continues to grow at a rate that may, in our lifetime, challenge our capacity to grow and raise enough food. And if this weren't enough, a national treasure, our forests, are under attack by under-controllable wildfires and invasious species. All of these serious challenges require a compelling new vision for the department, with the attention, dedication and leadership to make it happen. The president-elect has called upon each of us to meet these challenges.

If confirmed, I pledge to work with all the energy I have to do my part to make sure the department of agriculture does its part. To do its part in administering a robust farm safety net and create real and meaningful opportunities for farmers and ranchers to succeed, to guarantee that the communities where those farmers and ranchers live can grow and prosper, to help families that struggle to make ends meet each and every day to put food on their table, to place America at the forefront of efforts to aggressively address energy independence and global climate change, to enhance the safety of our food supply and reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses, to work with those who seek programs and practices that lead to more nutritious food produced in a sustainable way and to preserve and protect our national resources: our land, our water and our forests.

I'm under no allusion about the difficulty we face, but I recognize the commitment that Congress has made in the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill. USDA's job is to implement that far-ranging piece of legislation promptly and consistent with congressional intent. If confirmed, I commit to work immediately to implement the 600 provisions in 15 titles of the farm bill, including prompt implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Disaster Payment Program, and to leverage the financial commitment of the farm bill and of the stimulus bill, if one is passed, with other public sector and private resources to realize the full promise of rural America. None of this will be possible without 21st century technology. We need to provide Congress with a workable and realistic plan to implement the technology changes necessary to bring this department into the 21st century. If confirmed, I look forward to working with you to do just that.

I will also take steps to enhance the role of the farm sector and rural communities in solving the great environmental and energy- related challenges our country faces. Toward that end, I will work with you to expand opportunities for farmers, ranchers and rural communities to promote renewable energy technologies, like biofuels, wind, solar and geothermal, and to deliver the environmental benefits, like clean air, clean water and fish and wildlife habitat.

One final comment with the time that you've provided to me today: the department of agriculture was founded by President Lincoln as the "people's department." The time has come for this department to be the department of and for and by all the people. By working hard to resolve the outstanding civil rights claims in program and employment practices, we need to close this chapter and we need to begin looking forward. If confirmed, my message will be clear. Discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in this department.

I want to close by finishing where I began, by expressing my gratitude to the chairman, the ranking member and the committee for the chance to speak here today, to President-Elect Obama for the confidence he has placed in me to do this job, and to my family, Christie, Jess, Kate and Doug, for their love and support, and to the people of my home state for the privilege they afforded me to serve them.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

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