October 25, 2016

Who Would Clinton Appoint to Lead USDA?

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

On Friday, news outlet Politico released what it believes are Hillary Clinton’s top five choices for agriculture secretary should she elected in November. According to this story, the short list includes “Karen Ross, California's agriculture secretary; Blanche Lincoln, a former Arkansas senator; Kathleen Merrigan, a former USDA deputy secretary; John Hickenlooper, Colorado's governor; and Steve Beshear, Kentucky's former governor.”

 Roger Bernard of Informa Economics says some of those choices certainly make sense, but elections are far enough away that this discussion is strictly “a game of chance” for the time being.

“We need to see how the election comes out,” he says. “Are there any ag-related lawmakers that got beat? Are there any states that Clinton ‘owes’ should she win?”

 According to Bernard, California always gets mentioned in this discussion due in part that it is the biggest production state in the country. However, that doesn’t mean Karen Ross would be a bad choice, he says. Several of the candidates on Politico’s list have both agriculture “street cred” and know USDA. Secretary Ross, for example, worked for Vilsack’s administration prior to assuming her post in California, and Kathleen Merrigan is a former deputy secretary of agriculture.

Blanche Lincoln would be a solid choice given her knowledge of agriculture policy, Bernard says. Lincoln previously served on the Senate Agriculture Committee and most recently has lobbied for agriculture companies, including Monsanto.

 History shows that the president’s final choice can be surprising.

“Frankly, no one really had Tom Vilsack on any list eight years ago, as he had little ag experience,” Bernard says. “I always chuckle at that one when they point out someone has little ag experience.”

Bernard adds that nobody had Mike Espy on the list when Bill Clinton won the presidency, either. Ultimately, if Clinton wins the election, she will likely lean on Secretary Vilsack, her most trusted agriculture advisor, to help make the decision, but it doesn’t have to be made immediately. 

“Bottom line is the list could change quite a bit between now and whenever a pick is finally made,” Bernard says.