Agriculture Secretary, Special Interests Were Heavily Involved in Writing New Water Rule

Thomas Vilsack and Barack Obama
Thomas Vilsack and Barack Obama

Candidate Barack Obama promised to reform the White House and run an administration more transparent and less like the usual politics of the past. But as illustrated by the process which produced the administration’s water rule under the Clean Water Act, the same interest group liberalism of the past is how policy is made in this administration as well as those in the past. Agriculture Secretary, and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack, and numerous special interest groups were intimately involved in writing the new water rule the White House announced in May of 2014. Vilsack and current EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy are known to work closely together and were highly involved in the process by which the administration wrote the proposed water rule.

Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Cathy Cochran said Vilsack and McCarthy have lots of areas of common interest and speak with each other regularly,” Greenwire reported.

Additionally, as illustrated by documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Greenwire, McCarthy met often with other senior fellow administration official during the spring of 2014 and on the day when the new rule was announced. Vilsack himself, it was reported as known commonly among former Obama Administration officials involved in the process, a key constituency who had to be approve of the final version of the rule.

“For our part, USDA manages the national forests, works closely with farmers and ranchers in food production, has partnered with landowners to achieve a record number of acres in conservation programs, and introduced new efforts for climate smart agriculture and forestry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure cleaner air and water,” Dept. of Agriculture spokeswoman Cathy Cochran stated in an email. “Our work with the EPA is an important part of making this work effective.”

Cochran also acknowledged that Vilsack had on many occasions urged the EPA to listen to farmers and agri-business interests regarding their concerns about the water rule. One of the major opponents to the proposed rule was the American Farm Bureau Federation, that criticized the stricter version of the water rule as a sweeping expansion of federal regulatory power that could threaten common farming practices like using pesticides to fertilizing lands with manure. The influence of the Dept. of Agriculture is despite the fact that it does not have a regulatory role over water rules under the Clean Water Act.

After Vilsack met McCarthy and other administration officials on March 10, 2014, four weeks before the proposed rule was sent to the White House, two key parts of the rules were changed. One was a provision putting certain wetlands outside of the Clean Water Act’s protection that were currently in agricultural use, and changes in hard distance limits of when a wetland is considered to far from a river network to be subject to regulation.

Over the two weeks after the meeting with Vilsack, schedules show McCarthy met with the Office of Research and Development team that spearheaded the scientific report underpinning the rule and had calls with National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara and Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh, whose organizations have been the lead proponents of the Obama administration’s rule,” Greenwire reported.

Cooperation among government agencies is common, but this degree of close involvement of certain government officials and special interest groups leads to a process where those interest have undue influence over the process, leading to public policy outcomes that reflect far more the priorities of the special interest groups than any reasonable notion of what is in the public interest. This pattern of policy making, known as interest group liberalism, was the subject political scientist Theodore J. Lowi addressed in The End of Liberalism. Lowi proposed that a significant shift in how policy was made in America had occurred by the late 1960s, where Congress granted the bureaucracies vast power in making public policy, and those agencies often came under disproportionate influence of the special interests they were supposed to be empowered to regulate. The degree to which agricultural interests influenced the Dept. of Agriculture, rather than it effectively regulating those interests, was major focus of Lowi’s research.

It is clear under the current administration, that the practice of interest group liberalism, which has been how things have been done in Washington D.C. nearly eight decades, still very much prevails. The Obama Administration was going to most past the usual politics of the past but clearly that has not been the case. The process by which this administration has created the new water rule proves the old way of doing things don’t go away easily in the nation’s capitol, even under an administration that so strongly promised reform.

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