Even before Ann Veneman quietly submitted her resignation as secretary of agriculture Nov. 12, the Washington grapevine hung heavy with a long list of likely replacements.
Not that Secretary Veneman wanted to go; she didn’t.
The first two questions at her initial, post-election press conference Nov. 9 dealt with her future at the USDA. She parried both by noting Cabinet officers serve at the pleasure of the president.
But, she added sending the White House a clear smoke signal, “(W)e continue to do our jobs as well as we possibly can, which is what we want to be doing.”
The White House offered no explanation for turning her out.
That left the task to the grapevine, and it was cackling when Veneman’s departure became fact Nov. 15.
Grapevine. Most reasons centered on the single, upcoming job any USDA chief must accomplish in the second Bush administration: sell free trade to increasingly skeptical American farmers and ranchers.
Of all the White House goals in its second coming – overhauling the tax code, privatizing Social Security, cutting the federal deficit – finalizing, then pushing through a pliant Congress, a multilateral free trade accord might be the most doable.
Yet it’s a big “if.”
If that “if” slips out of reach, however, the president promises more bilateral free trade deals (like the Aussie and Central American ones that opened America’s doors to more imported ag goods) to keep the heat on balky World Trade Organization talkers.
Timing. Timing is key. World Trade Organization talks are scheduled to conclude almost at the exact moment Congress will begin to write the 2007 farm bill. It’s not a sublime coincidence.
Bipartisan Congressional budget cutters see the hoped-for WTO trade pact as the knife to sever U.S. farmers from back-to-back $100 billion-plus farm bills.
That makes free trade more than just a big deal with farm policy writers in 2007.
It will be the only deal because nearly every aspect of future farm policy – commodity prices supports, conservation programs, food aid donations, food safety rules, et. al.- will have to pass the WTO free trade test.
Currently, many don’t.
Just ask U.S. cotton growers or European sugar producers who flunked their WTO tests earlier this year.
As such, the White House needs a charming ag trade wonk to make the pitch that free trade will deliver more dollars to farmers and ranchers than Washington ever could. It will be one tough sale.
Replacements. The short list of Veneman replacements showcases two strengths – devotion to free trade and loyalty to the White House.
Most on it made their way from the farm to Washington through farm organization or lobbying work.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Charles Kruse was short-listed by the White House early. Karl Rove calls Kruse his “favorite farmer,” a near anointment of the Bootheel producer.
He’s a fervent free trader and worked Missouri like a mule to turn the supposed swing state into a solid red state in 2004.
Allen Johnson, former boss at the Iowa Soybean Association and checkoff board, came to Washington in 1985 as an ag aide to Sen. Charles Grassley. He later bossed the National Oilseed Processors before becoming chief ag negotiator for trade rep Robert Zoellick in 2001.
Among USDA candidates, Johnson is viewed as the trade expert and best farmer-to-farmer salesman Bush could pick.
Others. Given recent insider appointments, though, White House special ag assistant Chuck Conner may own the inside track at USDA.
A long-time Senate staffer to former ag committee chairman Dick Lugar, Conner ran the Corn Refiners Association before moving to the West Wing in 2001.
The dark horse, Democrat Rep. Charlie Stenholm from Texas, is an original member of the penny-pinching Blue Dogs and helped write five farm bills. Capitol Hill insiders, however, can’t see Cotton Charlie sharing branch water with House Republicans after House GOP boss Tom DeLay gerrymandered Stenholm’s flaming Nov. 2 defeat.
The winner? Given the job ahead – slashing USDA budgets, rewriting decades-old farm policy, selling free trade as a cure-all – whomever runs USDA will spend most or their time wondering why they ever took it.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
2004 ag comm