I spent a couple of hours last week watching Thomas James (Tom) Vilsack wrap the House Education and Workforce Committee around his little finger. It came on his 2,338th day as United States Secretary of Agriculture. He is the boss of 85,000 USDA employees. Those who promote the narratives for such events said the Secretary was going to be on the “hot seat” over the National School Lunch Program. Some hot seat. Halfway to his seventh year on the job, Vilsack can handle the many congressional committees that deal with his department without raising his resting heart rate. With their 19-century operating styles, congressional committees are their own worst enemy. No cohesive and comprehensive questioning will ever come from giving everyone their own five or three minutes to ramble on and make their attempt at some questions.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
But that’s what they still do. It’s the system, and Vilsack is more skilled than most at beating it. During the two-hour hearing, the Republican-controlled committee treated the Secretary of Agriculture more like a paid seminar leader from whom they were determined to get their money’s worth. In fact, a Colorado Democrat used his time to ask Vilsack about agricultural issues not even on the agenda, and the Secretary handled those like water off a duck’s back. Before being nominated to his current post by President Obama, Vilsack was mayor of Mount Pleasant, IA (pop. 8,662) for five years, state senator for six years, and governor of Iowa for eight years. For 85 days, in late 2006 and early 2007, he was also a candidate for U.S. president, but did not have the money to compete in the 2008 race. Although he endorsed Hillary Clinton, Vilsack joined the winner’s team when asked to head up USDA. The GOP may not come out and say it, but his tenure and accomplishments make Vilsack a rock star to any member who is part of the vast agricultural mechanism in Congress. Whether they have an R or a D behind their name, there are few members who would not consider it a big score to have Vilsack visit their district for a day. Vilsack is the 30th Secretary of Agriculture since the post was created during the Grover Cleveland administration. The last to serve 2,921 days — the equivalent of two presidential terms — was former Minnesota Gov. Orville L. Freeman, a protege of Sen. Hubert Humphrey. He served for eight years during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. Immediately before that, Ezra Taft Benson was Secretary of Agriculture during the entire eights years of the Eisenhower administration. But there have been no others to “go the distance.” Like a pitcher with no hitter going into the seventh inning, Vilsack is starting to look like he is going to be a keeper. Only one other member of the president’s cabinet (Education Secretary Arne Duncan) has served the Obama administration from day one. With his hoe in the rows at USDA, Vilsack has only hit one rock. That was the firing of Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia Rural Development official whose remarks were depicted as racist on a conservative news site. However, reactions to the Sherrod saga may have been directed as much at the White House as USDA. Still, it was the Secretary of Agriculture who did the apologizing to Sherrod when charges about her racism fell apart. Late in the game, Vilsack is throwing strikes. The pitcher he most reminds me of is All-Star Jamie Moyer, who became legendary not for his velocity but for his control and ability to mix his pitches. The Agriculture Secretary got to show his stuff early in last week’s hearing, and it came over milk. Since Congress adopted the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act five years ago, milk consumption is down by 187 million pints per year because of tight limits on flavors and fat. Milk producers are not happy about that, and milk has plenty of bipartisan advocates. So early on, Vilsack was asked about a flavor option for low-fat, 1-percent milk. Couldn’t the $12.5-billion National School Lunch Program (NSLP) allow that as an option? “I think if adding that option gets kids to drink more milk, we ought to do it,” the Secretary responded. There were smiles all around, and the milk producers issued a statement about how it would “improve the nutrients for children.” But it was in response to a long-winded question from Rep. Rep. Dave Brat, R-VA about how far the federal government should go in taking over parental responsibilities that Vilsack had the committee gathered around for his every word. He told of his own life. Left after birth at a Catholic orphanage, he was adopted within a few days by parents who wanted him. He added that his new mother was the best, except when she was drinking, and that she had abandoned him at age 13. After telling his personal story, this was Vilsack’s answer to Carter’s question: “Somebody has to be there.” Many eyes were tearing up at that point, and I knew there was not going to be another hard-ball question from this committee. Vilsack did keep talking, telling the committee he was not in a hurry to leave. The “hot seat” turned out to be an easy chair. The congressional questioners just never got on a coherent roll after that. It left one thinking Vilsack had more to say if only some decent questions were asked. He did say that only 58 of 99,000 schools had dropped out of the NSLP, and some are returning. I wondered if he might have meant 58 school districts. He never really had to directly address the lower-sodium and whole-grain standards that are challenging the ability of local school districts to turn out tasty meals. He talked of the need to move away from central kitchens, use more spices, and involve outside chefs. Vilsack spoke about the overall food waste issue, but he did not have to answer whether it continues to make sense to force kids to take fruit and vegetable servings they do not plan to eat. He did say that USDA is advocating salad bars, which might mean that some kids will get to take what they actually want to eat. Nor did the Secretary say what the overall impact of the NSLP will be if it continues to push millions of kids off campus each day to graze at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores simply because school meals leave them hungry. To be fair to these House committees, they are not just going to roll over on NSLP issues. Waivers for whole-grain requirements and sodium reductions look like they are sticking around. Yet, if it comes down to who is most popular in agriculture, there is no doubt in my mind who is going to win that one.