Tom Vilsack – Secretary of Agriculture
The quintessential revolving door figure, Secretary Vilsack returns to the USDA after a four-year stint at Big Dairy. Vilsack will have to overcome the specter of numerous potential conflicts of interest and demonstrate he has learned from his tenure during Obama, which was marked by a culture of harassment, retaliation, and political interference on some of the Department’s major policy priorities.
Tom Vilsack was confirmed to be President Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture on February 23, 2021. This will be his second round at the Department of Agriculture (USDA) after serving for eight years as Secretary under President Obama. Among Biden’s cabinet, Vilsack enjoys one of broadest levels of bipartisan support. Yet, his approach toward victims of sexual harassment and deep involvement in all aspects of Big Dairy’s agenda over the past four years creates some significant hurdles for him to overcome in fulfilling his ethics obligations.
President Obama’s USDA
Secretary Vilsack dealt with a steady stream of harassment claims coming from employees during his previous tenure at USDA. This resulted in congressional oversight by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, media scrutiny by outlets such as Politico, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, and investigations by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). As Politico reported, whistleblowers claimed, “the Department’s investigations were often delayed, mishandled, and rarely resulted in the accused being held accountable.” Similar to his colleagues at the Obama Department of the Interior, it was this lack of attention and disregard for addressing the claims head on with a clear harassment policy that only exacerbated and extended the crisis.
Scientific integrity was also an issue during Vilsack’s tenure. The Washington Post reported in 2014 that a whistleblower suit was filed alleging research on bee science was suppressed in order to benefit agrochemical companies like Bayer and Syngenta. EcoWatch also reported on the issue indicating, “In the spring of 2014, 10 USDA scientists took action, filing a petition calling on the USDA to stop ordering its own researchers to ‘retract studies, water down findings, remove their name from authorship and endure long indefinite delays in approving publication of papers that may be controversial.’” Should the public expect that scientific integrity at Vilsack’s USDA will also be subject to this type of treatment when issues impact Big Dairy’s bottom line?
Criticism of Vilsack’s conduct even came from allies on the Hill on one of his final major decisions before departing. Vilsack’s staff issued specious legal interpretations and displayed clear political interference on the issue of copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. The decision “floored” Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who personally emailed Vilsack to express her disappointment with how USDA circumvented the “normal process” to reach a predetermined outcome that aligned with activists’ goals. Is this the type of arbitrary and politically-motivated decision-making the public can expect during the next four years? Will Secretary Vilsack attempt to involve himself in the Twin Metals issue again despite his clear bias on the outcome, as evidenced by a December 2018 op-ed on the project?
President and CEO of Big Dairy
Within less than a month of stepping down from his post at USDA in 2017, Tom Vilsack was named President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (DEC). The global trade association claims more than 115 U.S. dairy producers, processors, traders and allied organizations belong to it and rely on it for lobbying, advocacy and representation. As DEC also states, the association “routinely partners with other dairy industry groups such as the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation to address the needs of its members, which includes producers, processors and cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders.” After digesting the breadth of issues and companies benefiting from Vilsack’s former employer, one wonders what issues will he be able to work on without violating his ethics obligations?
Putting aside the list of potentially prohibited entities, DEC worked on a number of high profile issues that will need guidance from senior leadership at USDA over the next several years. Will Vilsack recuse himself from all of these particular matters and those that give rise to an appearance of bias? Just a few of the more high profile issues include: Federal milk marketing orders, dairy export disputes under the USMCA, federal dietary guidelines, and federal nutrition programs. The bottom line is that Vilsack’s former employer was both heavily involved in Big Dairy policy and stands to financially benefit from the decisions of USDA officials under Vilsack’s command. How have these myriad potential conflicts of interest been addressed by ethics officials? Did it occur prior to his confirmation or is it still being undertaken?