Twenty-nine men and one woman have served as Secretary of Agriculture since the office was created when the U.S. Department of Agriculture achieved cabinet-level status in 1889.
With the especially close Nov. 5 general election only a couple months away, in all likelihood, a new Secretary of Agriculture will be appointed in a matter of months no matter whether voters pick Romney or Obama. Secretaries of Agriculture are either booted out by being on the losing side in the political game, or they leave after serving for one Presidential term.
Based on the pattern since then, however, it’s a pretty good bet that we are about to have a big job opening. It comes with perks–nice offices on the south end of the Mall, command of the federal government’s sixth largest workforce, and a fleet of beat up green trucks for running the U.S. Forest Service. Oh, and a $149 billion budget.
In rural America, the Secretary of Agriculture is the face of the federal government after the President of the United States, who most do not see much unless they live in a swing state like Iowa. And for the food safety community, the Secretary of Agriculture is one of a handful of truly important officials in the federal government,
The President and Secretary of Agriculture are charged with nominating the Under Secretary for Food Safety, now held by Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. The Under Secretary for Food Safety is eighth in line should something happened to the Secretary of Agriculture and most of his other deputies and under secretaries.
If my back were pressed against the wall and I was forced to make some predictions about who Romney or Obama will appoint as the 31st Secretary of Agriculture, I could punt in the general direction. For example, among the 30 who’ve held the post, almost all fall into one of several general categories.
Prior to appointment I would expect the next Secretary of Agriculture to be an incumbent or former governor, congressman, university administrator or Ag dean, and not much else. Yes, Reagan liked agribusiness people and Roosevelt carried on a short-lived pattern of naming farm journal publishers.
More recent history suggests the bar is set pretty high on credentials to get the job. For re-elected Presidents, the “former federal officials” category also have some credentials.
Throwing out names as predictions is far more risky. It’s just not a sport where you can achieve anything close to a decent batting average.
But, since we are now just a little over 60 days out from a presidential election that is tighter than a tick, it’s pretty hard not to be playing the game.
During last week’s Republican National Convention, we had to check and see if the adopted party platform said anything significant about food safety (it didn’t) and while we were at it, we took another at Romney-Ryan policy statements.
By contrast with predicting appointments is a pretty policy is usually a straightforward news assignment. The only drama about the platform language was the fetish the GOP had about keeping it all secret until it was adopted.
I always say that beyond opinion is pure speculation.
I don’t mind going down that road some. We could be a few weeks away from new leadership at USDA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and even the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Some who’ve I consulted with say if Romney is elected, the make-up of his Agriculture Advisory Committee may contain clues about who he’d name to USDA.
The co-chair of that group is Adam Putnam, the former GOP congressman who was elected as Florida’s commission of agriculture in 2010.
He’s young, just 38, even though he served five terms in the House and became part of leadership. Putnam as Secretary of Agriculture, however, does not seem like a fit to Romney.
My prediction, if Romney-Ryan wins, as the next Secretary of Agriculture is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He far more fits the profile.
A Pawlenty appointment would sail through the confirmation process and would be broadly accepted in rural America.
Putnam might be helping Romney in Florida, I have no way of knowing. As Commissioner, he got 56 percent of the vote for himself but how a minor statewide race translates into any for Romney this time is beyond me.
But Putnam and several others on the Romney Ag advisers list could well end up populating those nice USDA offices come January. A couple to watch are:
-Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives who is a former deputy Secretary of Agriculture.
- Tom Nassif , president and chief executive officer of Western Growers, also has impressive diplomatic credentials from his time in the Ronald Reagan’s State Department.
Re-election of the President would likely still mean we are near the end of Tom Vilsack’s tenure as the 30th Secretary of Agriculture. Again, going by history, it would not be much a surprise if Obama named someone currently in the federal government to the post.
The most likely choice in that category is Kathleen Merrigan, the current deputy Secretary of Agriculture who first ran the Agricultural Marketing Service in the Clinton Administration and came back from eight years as an Ag professor at Tufts University in Boston to be Vilsack’s second fiddle.
Obama’s re-election would probably mean a long tenure for Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, who has served in the second half of the President’s first term as Under Secretary for Food Safety.
It took Obama two years to fill the most important position for meat, poultry and egg safety in the U.S. Finding someone with the credentials who can survive the political scrutiny and who can be confirmed, it not easy.
Over FDA and CDC is the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Only nine people have held that job since Jimmy Carter put the current organization in place.
Experience required to get the job, so far, have been limited to past members of Congress (2), University deans or chancellors (3), and former governors (4). It’s not likely to change.
A re-elected Obama might want HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to stay on until “Obamacare” is implemented in 2014. Likewise if Romney wins and wants to take it apart, he may well need to tap a Governor familiar with the arcane details.
No predictions on that one. It depends too much on the elections and who is looking for a job afterwards.
Let’s drop down to FDA. This is intriguing because it comes from a network TV reporter from the food safety beat who does a lot of work on FDA. He does not exactly make a prediction, but he says “near the top of any list for Romney’s FDA” is Scott Gottlieb.
Gottlieb is a medical doctor who is currently a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Dr. Gottlieb is a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of he Wall Street Journal, where the views he has expressed there do believe to jibe with the Republican Platform language on FDA.
Gottlieb is a former deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs at FDA, from 2005 to 2007. Clearly he knows the territory and the issues. As I’ve read some of what he has written, he seems more on the drug and device side of the house than food safety.
Commissioner Gottlieb would mean someone else would have to take over Michael Taylor’s job over food.
Others to watch include:
-Scott Atlas, chief of neuroradiology at the Stanford Medical Center, and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute.
-Tom Barker, a lawyer and former deputy and general counsel at HHS.
-Tevi Troy, former deputy secretary at HHS and current senior follow at the Hudson Institute.
-Paul Howard, director of the Center for Medical Progress at Manhattan Institute, where he is also a senior fellow.
Finally, if Obama is re-elected, might some of the turf wars between HHS, FDA, and the White House get settled? There have been any number of reports of feuds festering behind the scenes.
Let’s open this up to all for some serious predictions. I can really see Gov. Pawlenty replacing Gov. Vilsack because each man fits with the culture we’ve come to expect for USDA.
Make me some serious predictions like that. I am listening.
Photo: Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman meeting with President Johnson. Credit: University of Texas© Food Safety News