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Letter From The Editor: Predictions Anyone?

Opinion

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.

At least that’s been the practice since 1960s when former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman did serve two back-to-back Presidential terms at USDA in the Kennedy-Johnson era.

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
  • keene observer

    The specter of Kathleen Merrigan as Sec of Ag is terrifying. That alone is all Romney-Ryan needs to get out the vote.
    Imagine American agriculture being bludgeoned backward in time to an inefficient low tech model. Imagine autocratic hope and change toward a dreamy impractical foodie agrarian utopia. That hasn’t been attempted since Pol Pot chased the dream in Cambodia almost half a century ago.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pol_Pot
    Do you have your hoe and your coolie hat ready? Sort of puts a frightening new spin on the idea of Labor Day, doesn’t it?

  • Farmer with a Dell

    Predictions you say. Dan?
    Rural Iowans have ciphered on this in coffee shops of late. Here’s the lowdown:
    If Obama is permitted to win, just as you say he will install Kathleen MERRIGAN in the catbird seat at USDA. She will lose no time reducing us to stoop labor mule farming out here in the Midwest. Our modern farm equipment can be cut up and recycled for scrap metal to forge more hybrid yuppie cars and giant electricity generating wind whimsies, we figure. (And a much bigger fleet of posh armored limousines for government fatcats, of course) We will no longer be dependent upon fossil fuels and we will be literally swimming in organic mule manure which surely will cure the planet of whatever the hell ails it. Sort of like a giant poultice.
    Michael POLLAN will be named Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. He teaches journalism at that California hippy college Berkeley in his spare time but mostly he is a self-taught expert on farming. He has lectured us Iowans about how we aren’t farming right, not farming the way he insists we should. He’s about had it with our independent attitude, our growth and our progress. It seems to sort of piss him off that each one of us farmers feeds a hundred or more people, we feed the world. And all done safely and affordably. Problem seems to be food has become so common and cheap when it should starkly define and separate social classes. Food should be a cultural bellwether, a status symbol they say.
    With his new power Pollan will promptly eliminate our maddeningly successful “corn-beans-hogs” rotation and install a blissfully subsistence “rutabagas-gladiolas-weeds” crop rotation. (Nothing demolishes a nasty monoculture quite like gladiolas because they come in so many lovely colors). American farmers will be redeemed and purified once again by relentless backbreaking toil and grinding poverty. Also, the oceans will recede at Pollan’s command.
    Alice WATERS will head up a transformational SNAP program and with Michele Obama’s blessing will use enormous gobs of taxpayer’s money (don’t worry, it will all come from rich people) to build countless wonderful little boutique food shoppes in ghetto food deserts across our fair land. At long last ignorant poor folk will have access to $5 heirloom tomatoes and $25 per pound porkchops. Impoverished people will become thinner and snobbier practically overnight. What a relief that will be. They will adopt a uniformly trendy affectation sporting distinct French overtones. Americans never have been French enough to suit Alice but she will fix all that for good. Names of everything will now require a prefix like “chez” or “le petite” for example. Prices will quadruple accordingly.
    Jamie OLIVER and Bettina SEIGEL will be authorized to dictate our kids’ school food situation. No more fried foods, no more flavored milk, no more flavored anything. Bake sales and treats brought from home will be banned under penalty of expulsion. Decision criteria will be wonderfully simplified: if it might be fun it is banned.
    A mandatory lunch menu will be installed that is pure elegance in its charming gastronomic simplicity:
    Monday — lettuce leaves and unseasoned vegetable gruel, water
    Tuesday — baby carrots and unseasoned vegetable gruel, water
    Wednesday — unsweetened pitted prunes and unseasoned vegetable gruel, water
    Thursday — celery sticks, unseasoned vegetable gruel, water
    Friday — boiled beans, unseasoned vegetable gruel, diluted apple juice as a very very special treat
    This will indoctrinate and slim our children even as Jamie continues to fatten (have you noticed how porky he’s getting?). Do not worry that Jamie is not American. What is one more illegal immigrant more or less?
    Michael BLOOMBERG and Marion NESTLE will be chief and assistant chief of the National Food Police (formerly the Department of Defense). Through a thorough set of maximally intrusive regulations, bans and taxation all Americans will, at long last, be saved from themselves. Navy Seals and Marines will be deputized and deployed as necessary. We will eat what we are told to eat, how much and when we are told to eat it, vegetables mostly, not too much.
    Taxes will be levied and collected on all sweet foods, animal proteins and just about anything that tastes good, swelling public coffers with ample funds to do even more draconian good works. A distorted foodie version of public health will become the principal mission of Homeland Security. Anyone with a sweet tooth will be deported. FEMA will manage the aftermath of ice cream socials and pancake breakfasts (all that maple syrup, eeewwwww).
    A new farm bill will put the finishing touches on a passionate drive to regress American farming deep into the Medieval ages. Not only will a tsunami of employment opportunities in stoop labor break over us in a wave of prosperity but all food prices will soar to two or three times their current value, like organic stuff is now. This sudden massive increase in spending by the middle class will stimulate our economy to the point of overheating. The Federal Reserve will constantly grapple with methods of slowing our economy to retain the need for entitlement programs. Oh, things will perk up and look so very much different. Perfection will, at long last, be achieved.
    Hope and change, girls. Oh, yes we can!

  • Joel

    Keene Deceiver need not worry. K. Merrigan was given a symbolic Deputy slot — while the real power resides with Big Ag/Big Biotech who are pulling the strings behind the scenes, as always.
    Word has it that Michael Taylor will be moved over from his designated Monsanto revolving door FDA slot — as the next Sec of Ag.

  • SSgt Mike B

    Oorah, Farmer D!
    Mission is house to house recovery of salt, sugar, soda pop >16oz, WMDs…detain bad guys for interrogation.
    Roger that. Can do.
    http://www.military.com/video/operations-and-strategy/afghanistan-conflict/house-raid-detains-20-insurgents/1621819618001/
    Same operational technique applies in Kabul or San Diego, IEDs or GMOs. Training transfers directly.
    Semper fi

  • Michael Bulger

    Looks like “Doc” has slung “Mudd” on yet another comments section. I’d say it was election year politics, but regular readers know that “Mudd” does this on a regular basis every year. That is all beside the point. Thank you for the article, Mr. Flynn. Some of us readers are truly interested in food safety and appreciate the serious thought you’ve put into this matter.