So Far, So Good

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

It’s a good thing I chickened out in my last column and didn’t make predictions as to who would be nominated to fill the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) subcabinet jobs because I would have been wrong in just about every case. Those are the folks who head up the various divisions of the departments, the people who can actually make our lives heaven or hell, depending on their policy predisposition. Seems getting through the vetting process at the White House is not so easy in these post-Daschle tax problem times and most of the names I would have posited are no longer in the running for the subcabinet slots.

Now, I would have predicted Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, assistant professor at Tufts University for food and nutrition, was all set to be undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, the folks who oversee the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the research/economic programs. I would have gotten the candidate correct, but I would have picked the wrong job. Merrigan got the nod to be deputy secretary of agriculture, the number two slot at the department, and I’m thinking that nomination may have surprised her as much as it did those of us in Washington who watch such things.

Merrigan’s experience in DC goes back to the 1985 farm bill. She was also the lead staffer for then Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) during the 1990 farm bill, and I can remember sitting in a very small room at a very late hour negotiating against her on the original statutory language that set up the National Organic Program at USDA. She won that battle, and later went on to implement the organics program during a stint as administrator of the Agriculture Marketing Service.

Merrigan is one smart person, with a PhD in environmental policy and planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She’s no doubt sitting in the number two spot because of her education and experience in environmental issues, and is likely to be the White House point person at USDA on all things climate change, carbon capture, and bio-based alternatives for everything from fuel to industrial products.

Dallas Tonsager, National Farmers Union (NFU) leader and a producer from South Dakota, was the only other nomination I would have gotten right; he got the nod for undersecretary for rural affairs. Tonsager is a Clinton and Bush appointee to the Farm Credit Administration, and was the co-chair of the Obama ag and rural outreach team. A solid guy, he’s a former executive director of the South Dakota Value-Added Agriculture Development Center, and was Clinton’s South Dakota Office for USDA Rural Development director.

Getting the nomination to be undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services is long-time NFU Washington guy Jim Miller. He was a long-shot and had some stiff competition. Miller is currently chief of staff for NFU, and prior to that was senior ag and trade analyst for the Senate Budget Committee, and has served as vice president for government relations at the National Association of Wheat Growers.

I still have my fingers crossed that Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Adrian Polanski will get the nomination to be undersecretary for marketing and inspection programs. He is a farmer and chairs the biotechnology committee for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. Merrigan was his chief competition for the job.

The rest of the subcabinet remains up for grabs. Word is that two sets of nominees were sent to the White House over the last month or so and both sets were generally found wanting, with the exception of the Merrigan and Tonsager picks. Why is it so tough? Maybe we should look at the circus that’s been the selection of a secretary for HHS.

When former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was nominated to head HHS and the White House council on health care, no one in DC doubted his confirmation would be swift and painless. No one counted on a car and a driver and several years of unreported income related to that car and driver. No one foresaw problems with Daschle and his wife jetting off on vacation on a non-profit group’s private jet. But the rest, as they say, is history and the outcome of Daschle’s withdrawal from the nomination set the vetting process for all nominees back on its heels, with several nominations about to be announced sent back for reinvestigation. At least the Obama folks learn from their mistakes.

No doubt some folks were found wanting, but I’m guessing several quietly pulled their names to be spared the limbo that is waiting to see if you pass muster. Then there’s the situation with who replaces Daschle at HHS, and with whom that person will be comfortable with as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner? And once those two are in place, what happens to the feed rule?

We got the answer to the first ques-tion when Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius finally accepted the nomination to be secretary of HHS. Her pedigree is solid, but most insiders are convinced she wasn’t happy to be second choice. By accepting the nod, she effectively takes herself out of the Kansas Senate race in 2010, a race she was most likely to have won. This gives GOP Senate watchers great hope, but I digress.

The FDA commissioner slot, arguably one of the most thankless jobs in any administration, is going to Dr. Margaret Hamburg, former head of public health for New York City and a former assistant secretary of HHS during the Clinton years. Hamburg, the choice of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, also did a stint at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA. FDA watchers are happy with this choice – as are some of the major consumer groups – as Hamburg is known to revere science and is considered evenhanded.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, head of public health for Baltimore, has fallen from the inside track for commissioner to become the nominee for deputy FDA commissioner. A former staffer and now “advisor” to Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), ultraliberal chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Sharfstein will likely head up the policy shop within the commissioner’s office. Word is that Sharfstein himself told the White House he’s a better fit for the number two spot than as commissioner.

How will Sibelius, Hamburg, and Sharfstein view the BSE feed rule? The answer is a complete unknown, but I’m going out on a limb and say the sitting governor of a major cattle producing state understands the economic impact of all things related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and the intricacies and cost of specified risk material and carcass disposal will not be lost on her. However, those at the Center for Veterinary Medicine will have to first convince Hamburg and Sharfstein that the rule needs to be fixed or withdrawn and both will have a fairly steep learning curve.

So, the bottom line is, so far, so good. We’ve generally been spared ideologues, and we know we’ll be dealing with at least a number of folks who’ve been in this game for a while. The rendering industry’s job will be to continue its efforts to ensure the folks who make the decisions that affect renderers’ bottom line, in a phrase, “get it.”

View from Washington – April 2009 RENDER | back