Vilsack hearing leaves tough questions unanswered

by Josh Sosland
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By at least one key measure, the Obama administration was off to a headstart last week with the release by the Senate of Troubled Asset Relief Program funds, the highly unpopular program aimed at restoring stability to the financial sector. David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal credited Mr. Obama with showing a deft touch in convincing legislators to give the go ahead on the second part of TARP. Whether this skill extends beyond the so-called honeymoon period and whether it will be used judiciously certainly remains to be seen.

Any positive signs regarding the Obama administration’s farm policies were more difficult to find last week. Certainly it was to be expected that Tom Vilsack, nominee for secretary of agriculture, would be as accommodating as possible when questioned by the Senate committee charged with deciding whether to recommend confirmation (he subsequently was confirmed on Jan. 20).

Additionally, Robb MacKie of the American Bakers Association has described Mr. Vilsack as someone, "We believe we can work with."

Still, it was quite difficult to hear much in the testimony of Mr. Vilsack to prompt a belief that significant progress would be made in making needed reforms in U.S. farm policy. Mr. Vilsack seemed determined to demonstrate that the U.S.D.A. under his watch will meet everyone’s wish list rather than making tough decisions and sacrifices. Perhaps most encouraging was a remark made in response to a question about greenhouse gas emissions in connection with ethanol but with broader ramifications, extending from agricultural biotechnology and nutrition to farm trade.

Mr. Vilsack said, "We should be making decisions based on sound science. We should be comfortable with the data and comfortable with the science. I think that’s the only way to make a good decision."

If it’s followed with rigorous intellectual honesty, it’s difficult to take issue with such a philosophy.

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