Vilsack gets the nod

VILSACK GETS THE NOD…. A month ago, the Washington Post called former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) “a near shoo-in for secretary of agriculture.” A couple of weeks later, Vilsack told reporters in Iowa he “won’t be the next agriculture secretary.”

As it turns out, the initial reports were right. Vilsack will be introduced as Obama’s pick to head the Department of Agriculture at a press conference today in Chicago.

When it comes to the nomination, there’s no question that Vilsack, a “strong proponent of renewable energy and developing the nation’s alternative fuel industry,” knows a great deal about agriculture policy, but there are reasonable doubts about whether he’s on the right track.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack are regarded as staunch advocates of ethanol and other bio-fuels as a way to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. And Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress are working on a major economic stimulus package, in which they intend to promote the creation of thousands of new jobs tied to “green energy” industries, including the production of solar and wind energy.

One of the first major decisions Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack may have to make is whether to grant the ethanol industry’s requests for billions in federal aid in the stimulus bill, which Mr. Obama has said he hopes to sign into law quickly, perhaps on his first day in office.

“The big issue for him and any incoming secretary is going to be biofuels, that’s the sector that right now is in such a volatile position,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that is a leading critic of federal farm subsidies. American farmers, Mr. Cook said, are “hitched to both the food system and the energy system, both of which are oscillating.”

About a month ago, Ezra Klein made a compelling case that Vilsack is problematic, given his ceaseless support for corn subsidies, and the likelihood that his role on Obama’s team would mean “treating agricultural policy as if the relevant constituency is food producers rather than food consumers.”

But the news may not be that bad. Vilsack’s position on subsidies has been discouraging, but as Ezra later noted, “his energy policy has been notably forward-looking, and so it’s possible he could come around.”

Indeed, Grist’s Tom Philpott noted a few weeks ago, “[N]one other than Grist’s own David Roberts declared his energy plan during last year’s Democratic primaries the ‘ballsiest and most detailed any candidate from either party has offered.’ And Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told me that Big Ag commodity groups had mounted a backroom campaign against Vilsack’s bid for USDA chief. Evidently, the former governor is more of a champion of conservation programs than they can tolerate.”