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Harkin, Grassley boost Vilsack hopes at Wed. hearing for Ag Secretary nominee

Thursday, January 15, 2009

U.S. Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack sailed through his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday with little opposition, endorsing Barack Obama's pledge to end child hunger by 2015 and supporting federal purchases of fruits and vegetables to boost school lunch programs.

The former Iowa governor would take an estimated $100,000 pay cut to leave a Des Moines legal firm post and accept the job in Washington.

Vilsack sought to appeal to specialty commodity growers in Califoria and Florida as well as traditional Midwestern ag interests.

He says the Agriculture Department faces "historic challenges," mostly brought on by economic woes. If confirmed, part of his task will be to oversee the burgeoning "food stamps" program.

Vilsack proposed no new programs, but praised provisions in the farm bill that was adopted last year over President George W. Bush's veto. These include $1 billion to purchase fruits and vegetables for school snacks in all 50 states.

Vilsack said that in a "powerful, rich country" like the United States that "none of us should be satisfied that there are children going to bed hungry."

Fellow Iowan Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, presided over the hearing on the Vilsack nomination. Often there were as few as two committee members present, but plenty of lobbyists lined up to get a crack at the nominee. Harkin said he hopes for Vilsack to be accepted as soon as next Tuesday.

Harkin used the event to push for policy on sustainable food networks, food aid for the needy and renewable energy. Vilsack has long been a champion of corn-based ethanol.

Fellow Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley also put in an appearance. He told the Pilot-Tribune that he called for equity for small producers in livestock contracts, promoted payment limits and sought efforts to boost the crop insurance industry.

Though they come from opposite sides of the political aisle, Grassley firmly supports Vilsack's approval. "He's been around agriculture and the family farm as mayor of a small town and as governor of Iowa, which is going to be a tremendous benefit," he said.

Vilsack foreshadowed the challenges ahead, saying "small towns and rural communities continue to lose people and jobs while critical infrastructure crumbles. These towns and communities find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy."

The few critics of Vilsack's nomination pointed to a perceived past cooperation with corporate agribusiness, and expressed concern that it would be unlikely to see a major overhaul of how government does business under officials like the former governor and one-time presidential candidate.

Vilsack also says he would continue to accept thousands of dollars a year in federal set-aside payments for farmland he owns in David County if approved, but that he would abstain from direct actions that would impact his personal government payments.

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