Stenholm, Veneman seen likely as US agriculture secretary
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm and veteran regulator Ann Veneman have been tagged by farm lobbyists, consultants and lawmakers as likely front-runners for U.S. agriculture secretary in a Bush or Gore administration.
While the outcome of the presidential race remains in dispute, Veneman, a Republican, and Stenholm, a Democrat, are prominent among a half-dozen people from each party considered by many as possible successors to Dan Glickman as head of one of the largest federal departments.
With nearly 100,000 workers, the Agriculture Department oversees 191 million acres of national forests, pays farm subsidies, inspects the safety of the meat supply, and spends more than $50 billion a year on public feeding programs like food stamps and school lunches.
"Obviously, it isn't going to shake out until we know who won Florida," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, the nation's biggest grower group. Stallman was referring to the legal dispute over Florida's 25 electoral votes, which are needed for either Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore to garner the 270 votes needed to win the White House.
Although Stenholm, a conservative Democrat, is seen as a possible choice for the Republican Bush, he faces pressure from his party to remain in Congress. Stenholm represents a district in Texas seen likely to swing to Republican control should he resign his seat.
Congressional staff workers say the narrow margin of control held by Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives would deter any incumbents from taking a Cabinet job.
Republicans need every seat to retain their majority on close votes while Democrats cannot squander seats when control is almost within grasp.
Veneman served under Bush
Veneman, who served as the No. 2 official at the USDA during the Bush administration and later became California's agriculture director, would be the first woman agriculture secretary if she was selected.
While Veneman and Stenholm have agricultural backgrounds, sentiment was rising in some quarters for appointment of a farmer to be agriculture secretary. The last three secretaries -- Glickman, Mike Espy and Ed Madigan -- came from the House Agriculture Committee.
New presidents often try to strike a balance among the three major U.S. farm regions when they name an agriculture secretary and the deputy secretary, the No. 2 official in charge of day-to-day operations.
The Midwestern farm states are most concerned with corn, soybeans and wheat, while western states are more interested in livestock, citrus and vegetable issues. Southern farm states have a mix of key crops, including soybeans, cotton, rice and citrus.
Recent history shows the choice can go to a late-arising candidate.
Electoral misfortune -- losing a reelection campaign -- made Glickman available in 1994 when President Clinton needed someone who could mend fences with Congress. President Reagan chose Illinois farmer Jack Block after looking at better-known prospects.
Some agriculture policy experts say the attempt to predict the president's choice for secretary is a Washington parlor game with little practical value. The government plays a much smaller role in U.S. agriculture than it once did, when it could order the idling of millions of acres of cropland or cement huge grain deals with the now-defunct Soviet Union.
Some analysts say officials like the U.S. trade representative, who negotiates trade pacts, have more influence over farm income in this age when exports account for 25 cents of every $1 in farm receipts. Farm commodities are also keenly affected by stricter environmental rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and currency exchange rates, which are under the purview of the Treasury Department.
Short list of USDA candidates
The following is a list of people often mentioned by lawmakers, agricultural consultants and farm groups as likely prospects for the top job at the USDA:
--Veneman, the No. 2 Agriculture official during the Bush era and later California agriculture director.
--Stenholm, a fiscal conservative and the Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee. Stenholm was believed to be willing to serve as secretary under either Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush.
--Former Rep. Jill Long Thompson of Indiana, now USDA undersecretary for rural development.
--Republican Jim Moseley, who was in charge of conservation programs and the Forest Service under Bush's father, former President George Bush.
--Charles Kruse, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and former state agriculture director.
--Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democratic leader on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
--Rep. Cal Dooley, a Democrat from California's Central Valley.
--Californian Lon Hatamiya, who headed the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service during President Clinton's first term.
--Republican Susan Combs, Texas agriculture director
--Bill McCollum of Florida, Republican who gave up a House seat to unsuccessfully run for the Senate.
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