President-elect Barack Obama promised to expand the nation’s renewable energy sources and close the “revolving door” that allows top officials to profit by moving between government and the businesses it regulates.
His appointment of Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary may test the limits of both of those promises.
During his days as Iowa’s governor, Mr. Vilsack provided a classic example of the revolving door that helps politicians benefit both politically and personally from their government contacts.
As governor early this decade, Mr. Vilsack took state actions that greatly boosted MidAmerican Energy Co.’s expansion into wind energy. He later collected political donations from company executives when he chose to run for president in 2008.
When he stepped down from office in 2006, Mr. Vilsack went to work as a consultant for the very same energy company helped by his policies, a Washington Times review of public records found. Now Mr. Vilsack is poised to return to government, where he’ll help shape a renewable-energy industry that counts MidAmerican as one of its major players.
A Senate committee is set to review his nomination Wednesday.
Ethics experts say Mr. Vilsack probably will have to remove himself from decisions that would affect his former employer if he is to live up to the new president’s ethics rules.
“He should be obligated to recuse himself in those matters of a direct pecuniary nature,” said Craig Holman, legislative director for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks political fundraising and its influence on government policy.
With his nomination pending, Mr. Vilsack was not available for comment, but he told reporters last year that since joining the private sector he had “a very limited client list” and that MidAmerican had no business pending before the federal government. “I can promise I will do whatever is appropriate in the face of the conflict,” he said.
Obama’s two promises
The president-elect has promised to “free the executive branch from special-interest influence.” In an effort to close what Mr. Obama described as “the revolving door on former and future employers,” he said no political appointees in his administration would be permitted to work on regulations or contracts “directly and substantially” related to their prior employer for two years. He also said no political appointee would be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service, during the remainder of his administration.
In picking Mr. Vilsack to head the massive Department of Agriculture, Mr. Obama said the former Iowa governor would be “fiercely protective of family farms but also forward looking on how we can develop cellulosic ethanol and harness wind and solar power to boost rural economies.”
Mr. Obama has proposed an economic stimulus package to promote the creation of thousands of new jobs tied to “green energy” industries, including the production of solar and wind energy.
“Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in the oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home,” Mr. Obama said in announcing the selection. “That’s the kind of leader I want in my Cabinet.”