The memos were only part of a busy week in Washington. The U.S. House passed an economic stimulus plan topping $800 billion -- the most expensive spending bill in American history.
Highlights include a $1,000 per-couple tax cut, a $43 billion boost for infrastructure repairs and construction, and a $43 billion aid package for the poor and unemployed.
Farm country is by no means left on the sidelines with a line item that adds $20 billion to the food stamp program. But augmenting aid to America's poor and unemployed is only part of what newly minted Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has in mind for USDA. The Department has been plagued by complaints of over spending and accidental subsidy payments to deceased farmers. And Vilsack is now the third Secretary of Agriculture given the responsibility of handling fallout from the landmark civil rights case that ended in the largest settlement in U.S. history.
Newly sworn-in Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack already is hitting the media circuit in defense of President Obama's stimulus package and USDA's role in the federal government response.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: ""I think we'll be at the front of responding to the impact and the human consequences of job loss. Now when people lose their job they obviously worry about putting food on the table. Now that's why its important in the stimulus package to increase and significantly put more resources behind the food assistance programs so that we can assure those families that are struggling today that they can get food on the table for their children."
Vilsack says the massive economic stimulus bill that passed the U.S. House this week could help current Agriculture Department initiatives in Rural America.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "A lot of these contractors can have a rough time in these small towns. But if we are creating easements, restoring wetlands, developing buffer strips through the Conservation Stewardship Programs and EQUIP, then we can help get these people back to work."
President Obama's nearly $900 billion economic stimulus package could include $250 million to overhaul USDA's aging computer system and $6 billion for rural broadband initiatives. Both appropriations were criticized by Republican leadership as "government pork" unlikely to stimulate the economy – a charge Secretary Vilsack disputes. The new Ag Secretary hoped to send an email to USDA employees on his first day on the job only to discover his message needed to reformatted and resent across the Department's 29 different computer systems.
Speaking to Department employees last week, Vilsack also dove into the politically charged history of racial discrimination at USDA.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: ""We have been criticized by the GAO. We have been criticized by the Inspector General. We have been criticized by Congressional leaders. We have been criticized by groups and we have been sued - repeatedly over the decades. It takes time, it takes energy, it takes resources, it doesn't have to be and it shouldn't be."