January 23, 2020

Sec. Vilsack: “I just sometimes think rural America is a forgotten place”

Categories: Rural America

From the front page of Today’s Washington Post

Greg Jaffe and Juliet Eilperin reported on the front page of today’s Washington Post that, “Late last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack strode into the Oval Office to tell President Obama that he wanted to resign.

“‘Mr. President,’ he said, ‘I think it’s time to go.’

“Vilsack had survived nearly eight years in Washington as Obama’s model Cabinet secretary — a disciplined and efficient technocrat who understood the inner workings of his department, worked well with lawmakers and did not cause trouble for the White House.”

The Post writers stated that, “Lately, though, that approach did not seem to be enough to fix the problems he was seeing in the country. Vilsack was frustrated with a culture in Washington that too often ignored rural America’s struggles and dismissed its virtues. ‘I just sometimes think rural America is a forgotten place,’ he often said.”

Vilsack sometimes felt forgotten, too. He ran a sprawling bureaucracy with 93,000 employees and a $150 billion budget, but the number of consequential issues crossing his desk had dwindled. ‘There are days when I have literally nothing to do,’ he recalled thinking as he weighed his decision to quit.

The Oval Office conversation would change the trajectory of Vilsack’s career and affect him personally in ways that he could not have predicted. Obama asked him to oversee the administration’s response to the opioid crisis that was ravaging rural America.”

Today’s article noted that, “The new assignment would force Vilsack to confront not only the immediate drug crisis in the country but also the frustrations and feelings of economic hopelessness that had taken root and allowed the epidemic to flourish.

“Each morning Vilsack’s staff passed him statistics that tracked the administration’s top priorities: its push to train physicians on the risks of opioid addiction; the latest on its effort to get the overdose reversal drug naloxone out to more communities; the status of federal grants earmarked for struggling communities.”

The Post article added that, “[Sec. Vilsack] knew that he did not have money for anything ambitious. An urgent request from the White House earlier this year for $1.1 billion to battle the opioid epidemic was stalled in Congress. His department’s discretionary budget, which he could use to fund clinics, was $2 billion less than it had been in 2010.

So Vilsack channeled his energy into little things: A police officer he had met complained that prices of naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, had tripled since January to nearly $160 per dose, making it too costly for many rural police and fire departments. Vilsack promised to raise the issue with the White House.”

“But, he was most excited about a four-state pilot program he was developing to use USDA grants and foreclosed properties to create transitional housing for people in treatment,” the article said.

Jaffe and Eilperin pointed out that, “Vilsack knew that the past 15 years had hit rural America especially hard. Rural child poverty rates had begun climbing in 2003, peaking at levels last seen in the 1960s. Only in the past few years had they begun to edge back down. Rural Americans were older, more likely to be obese, less likely to go to college and more likely to become pregnant in their teenage years than people in the rest of the country. And now the opioid crisis.”

The Post article stated that, “[Sec. Vilsack’s] frustration was with the rest of the country — the media, Congress and the private sector — which he felt had ignored the struggles and contributions of a region that produced most of the country’s food and, during 15 years of war, had disproportionately filled the ranks of its military.”

And today’s article also indicated that, “Privately, [Sec. Vilsack] let his anger and frustration with Washington show. He was sensitive to the smallest slights directed at rural America or his record. Denis McDonough, the president’s chief of staff, praised Vilsack’s effectiveness even as he referred to him as the ‘cranky’ Cabinet secretary.

“‘Maybe I have been here too long,’ Vilsack grumbled. He gazed up at his sprawling Beaux-Arts style office with its gold filigree columns, massive windows and stunning views of the Mall.

“‘I have to be cranky,’ he continued, ‘because people don’t pay attention to this part of the country.'”