The Senate voted 92-7 Tuesday to confirm Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary, sending the former Iowa governor back to a department he ran for eight years under President Barack Obama.
"His deep knowledge of agriculture and rural America is needed now more than ever," Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said ahead of the vote. "The COVID-19 crisis is continuing to disrupt our food supply chain... We have more than 50 million Americans today who are in a hunger crisis."
She noted the threat of climate change and that farmers of color are experiencing economic disparities and said Vilsack would consider "new ideas in a new era at the department."
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the ranking member of Senate Agriculture, noting Vilsack's reputation, urged Republicans to vote to confirm him. "I trust that the secretary will work with Congress as the agriculture community tackles new and existing challenges," he said.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Rick Scott, R-Fla., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, voted against confirmation.
As Agriculture secretary for President Joe Biden, Vilsack has several broad directives to meet. He is to enlist agriculture in the Democratic administration's push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, address a surge in food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 economic downturn, and end discriminatory policies and practices that have shut out Black and other minority farmers from USDA programs.
At his Feb. 2 hearing, Vilsack said he is ready to deliver in those four areas and to "build back the rural economy in better shape than it was before the COVID crisis."
Vilsack also told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee that he would take on his old job fully aware that he must be adaptable.
"I also realize this is a fundamentally different time and I am a different person and it is a different department," Vilsack said, alluding to critics who say his nomination represents a missed opportunity to break with the status quo and install a watchdog rather than an ally for agriculture.
He vowed to address a history of racial discrimination in departmental programs. His opponents have said he had not done enough during his prior stint as secretary to make reforms.
"We need to fully, deeply and completely address the long-standing inequities, unfairness and discrimination that have been the history of USDA programs for far too long," Vilsack said.
The administration has started to assemble a team to work with Vilsack to meet Biden's goals. Biden has nominated Virginia Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Jewel H. Bronaugh to be the deputy agriculture secretary and the department's No. 2 official. If confirmed, Bronaugh would be the first woman of color to hold the post.
Vilsack will have former USDA official Robert Bonnie as his climate adviser and Monica Armster Rainge, formerly the land retention and advocacy director for The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, as deputy assistant secretary for civil rights. Rainge, an agricultural lawyer and mediator, has worked in public and private efforts for more than 20 years to reduce systemic obstacles to black land ownership.
Stacy Dean, an advocate for expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program while vice president for food policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is the new USDA deputy undersecretary overseeing food assistance.
More immediately, Vilsack may have to address disaster aid for areas hit hard by historic snowstorms. He also returns to the Agriculture Department as farmers and ranchers recover from a multi-year slide in market prices compounded by COVID-19 related disruptions to supply chains in 2020 and retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports by trading partners.
The department is now forecasting higher market prices for corn, soybeans, wheat, livestock and poultry and record export sales of $157 billion in fiscal 2021, but the department said the benefits of the improving farm economy will not be evenly spread.
Some farmers and ranchers are awaiting payments from a $2.3 billion round of COVID-19 aid the Trump administration began distributing, but the Biden administration temporarily halted payments while the department evaluates the program along with other Trump administration policies. The department will continue to accept applications for the aid until Friday.
The Agriculture Department drew criticism from lawmakers and advocates for beginner, minority and smaller farmers for its distribution of $23.6 billion in earlier COVID-19 aid direct payments they said favored larger agriculture operations.