Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a teleconference with the media on Monday to discuss his priorities for USDA. He told reporters he has had the opportunity to meet with career staff at USDA and said he had made clear that they will be empowered to lead change and provide ideas to move USDA forward.
"It is a top priority for me to fill quickly those positions of responsibility at USDA that I have the privilege to fill," Vilsack said. "I'm looking for competent, diligent leaders and we continue to make progress identifying individuals who we think will do well at USDA."
Vilsack declined to name names because of the vetting process, he assured everyone that progress is being made and he is looking forward to putting the team together as quickly as possible.
Currently USDA is in the midst of implementing the regulatory review memo that was put forward by President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel last week.
"We're reviewing all the rules that meet the standards in the memo and will be acting in the coming days to make sure the regulations where we still have some degree of flexibility meet the objectives that have been set by the President," Vilsack said. "At this point only a few firm decisions have been made, but we are moving with speed and care on this important priority."
Vilsack outlined two of the changes that have been made: the withdrawal of a rescission that would have cut more than $3 million from the Specialty Crop grant program; and the direction to extend the public comment period on the payment limit rule for an additional 60 days.
"The President indicated very clearly that he wants this government, this agency and all agencies to be transparent, to be participatory, and to be collaborative," Vilsack said. "That means he wants us to reach out to the people of this country to engage them in conversation, discussion and debate about policy decisions."
According to Vilsack the payment limit rule received a small number of comments, so by extending the comment period they are encouraging people to participate, but went on to clarify that this will not signal an effort to modify rules that are in place for the 2009 crop year.
"I realize that signup has begun and it's important for farmers, ranchers and bankers to have clear and consistent rules in place so that producers can prepare for the crop year and manage their risk appropriately," Vilsack said. "However I want to pursue an extended comment period so that we can review the extent and purpose of the rule for future crop years. I am particularly interested in suggestions that would help the department target the payments to farmers that really need the payments and to ensure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties."
Other priorities Vilsack discussed were combating childhood obesity and enhancing health and nutrition; development of biofuels, wind power and other renewable energy sources; and making progress on climate change.
"We have some serious challenges and many opportunities to pursue here at USDA," Vilsack said. "I'm looking forward to working with the dedicated employees of USDA to fulfill President Obama's desire of effecting change and promoting a stronger, more vibrant and more economically viable rural America."