This morning, I was among a presumably small number of people huddled around our computer screens or speakers, observing the Senate Agriculture Committee's hearing of Obama's Agriculture Secretary Nominee, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. Committee Chair Senator Harkin released this statement about the nomination. The archived webcast of the hearing is available here.
Although I only watched half of the hearing, the Senators covered many of the controversial topics in food and agriculture policy, ranging from organic standards to domestic and global hunger, trade liberalization, crop insurance, forestry and of course commodity payments. If you have never watched a confirmation hearing, as I hadn't, it feels remarkably like being a fly on the wall of a job interview. Vilsack drew on examples from his past positions to illustrate his commitments to farmers of all sorts, rural development issues, action against hunger and experiences addressing civil rights concerns in government.
As expected, Vilsack sailed through the hearing, which included substantial mutual back-scratching and compliments to the Committee on its work passing the 2008 farm bill, despite the many obstacles to doing so.
Some highlights included Vilsack's encouragement of locally grown fruits and vegetables and pronouncement that they should be grown not just in rural areas, but everywhere. He announced that he met with Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle last week in order to demonstrate the importance of working together for nutrition.“It’s going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children’s diets. . .that means supporting those who supply those products” and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products, Vilsack said. And there was Senator Pat Roberts' contrasting descriptions of local, organic farmers who sell apples "with a little extra protein" at farmers markets in "the county seat," with "real" farmers involved in production agriculture, as he proclaimed that the latter group are the ones actually supplying America's food.
It is expected that Vilsack will be confirmed easily by the full Senate as early as next Tuesday as soon as Obama is sworn in as President and officially nominates his Cabinet. You may wonder, as my roommate did, how the Senate can hold hearings for administration appointees before President-elect Obama has officially nominated them. From my small amount of research, it seems that this entire process is going more quickly than in previous transitions, with the hope that the new Administration will be in a better position to tackle the myriad problems with which they will be confronted on Day 1 if these appointees can be confirmed immediately. Some Republicans in Congress have expressed frustration at the unprecedented speed with which the administration-elect is proceeding through the nomination and vetting process; I imagine that if Congress were controlled by the opposite party, even the bipartisan spirit supposedly sweeping Washington would not be enough to enable things to proceed this quickly.