Now for the Heavy Lifting

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

The favorite pastime in Washington, DC, whenever a new president is elected is the guessing game over who will get to be secretary of whatever-department-you-care-about. However, when it comes to the business of doing business, the truly critical appointments are all of those folks chosen to be under, deputy under, and assistant secretaries – the subcabinet appointments – who have day-to-day influence over the regulatory programs that affect us all.

While career bureaucrats will continue to run the agencies and write the regulations by which we must all live, it’s the subcabinet appointments who are their bosses, who make the political decisions, and who directly impact how those regs are written and how a program is implemented. They can also be the best conduit for moving information up the chain of command, or they can be the immovable barrier to getting your message heard.

Subcabinet appointees come in many stripes. The worst of all worlds for any lobbyist is to have a good, solid secretary, but then have under and assistant secretaries with authority over critical programs who come into the job with an agenda. These are the folks with political or personal philosophies so intense the overall administration policy gets lost. Then there are the ideologues. These are the appointees who have consumed so much of the political/philosophical “Kool-Aid” that real world considerations and pragmatism get lost. And, finally, we have the pure, unadulterated political appointee, the person who’s named to a job as pure political compensation for dollars donated or influence wielded. Generally they’re shunted off to jobs where they can do little real damage – and they get a nifty title – but they generally bring little or no leadership or experience to the policy arena or to governing.

President Barack Obama’s cabinet level appointments are generally excellent choices, deemed more moderate than radical. There are a couple of wild cards in the deck – union champion Representative Hilda Solis (D-CA) for secretary of labor, or former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner as chair of the new White House environmental/energy council, for instance – but the overall insider consensus is Obama made centrist choices, individuals with identifiable expertise and government experience. This was the smart way for Obama to go given the economic challenges his administration faced even before he was sworn in.

Depending on the personal style and desire of the anointed department secretary, that person can be either the head cheerleader for the department – out on the hustings making speeches, promoting the policies and programs of the new administration – or that person can be a take-charge, hands-on kind of secretary.

In the case of secretary of agriculture, it’s never been an “A list” job in any new administration. However, the choice of secretary is critical; it’s a job that touches everyone. And let us not forget, the job means you’re running the second largest bureaucracy in the federal government after the Pentagon. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack – now Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack – is still getting to know Washington and the ag players, and from what I’ve read, he will likely be the kind of secretary who will expect good people to do good jobs. Folks in Iowa from both sides of the aisle who know and have worked with Vilsack say he’s smart, the kind of guy who does his homework. In order for Vilsack to concentrate on the big picture, he will need a subcabinet team that ensures he does not have to get down in the weeds on programs, policy implementation, or the daily evolution of implementation and enforcement actions.

The chain of command starts with Vilsack’s secretarial team. His chief of staff will hold the keys to the kingdom, essentially controlling who gets face time with the secretary. However, a good chief of staff plays fair and ensures the secretary hears both sides of critical issues. It will be his or her job to ensure that the wishes of the secretary are carried out, while running his office day-to-day and insulating him from the minutiae and the headaches. There are generally two deputy staff directors, one for policy and the other for administration/agency coordination. Both are critical.

Then there’s the deputy secretary slot. This slot has generally been reserved for a strong administrator, someone who can keep the overall department operations train running on time. However, depending on the person sitting in the secretary’s chair, the deputy secretary can serve as the “shadow secretary,” with significant policy development influence, along with strong connections at the White House and other departments. Strong deputy secretaries in my experience include Chuck Conner, who came to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from the White House and was acting secretary after Secretary Mike Johanns resigned to run for and win the junior Senate seat from Nebraska; Dick Lyng, who went on to become secretary; and Jim Moseley, deputy secretary for Secretary Ann Veneman.

The key under secretary spots at USDA for the renderers are under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs and the under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services. While other subcabinet slots, such as the under secretary for food safety, impact rendering, it’s these two jobs and the people who fill them that have the biggest, most consistent impact on independent renderers.

The under secretary for marketing and inspection services has authority over the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and its myriad programs, including those that touch on the animal health components of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy issue, such as carcass and specified risk material disposal issues, and coordinating these issues with the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Export permitting falls to a section of APHIS, as well as product and market promotion. He/she will also have animal identification responsibility, along with program decisions on how far and how fast such a program will go, particularly when it comes to whether the Obama administration decides to stick with voluntary premises or move to mandatory individual animal identification. Other agencies/offices overseen by this under secretary include biotechnology services, grain inspection, and packers and stockyards.

Over at farm and foreign agricultural services, the critical mass centers on management of the Commodity Credit Corporation, that deep well of federal dollars, along with loan and price support programs, crop/livestock insurance, and the Foreign Agriculture Service, including trade agreements, food assistance, and market promotion/cooperator programs.

So, the presidential appointment lottery isn’t over by a long shot. Names are floated almost daily for subcabinet jobs, and almost as quickly as a top candidate emerges, they’re replaced in the guessing game by someone you’ve never heard of. We’ll keep you posted.

View from Washington – February 2009 RENDER | back