Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate agriculture committees face daunting challenges as misconceptions by the general public and flawed policy ideas from the Bush administration vie for attention as legislators begin crafting a new farm bill.
The farm bill should be about maintaining a safety net, says Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and ranking member of the House agriculture committee. Moran was keynote speaker at the recent Plans Cotton Growers, Inc., annual meeting at Lubbock.
He says a USDA farm bill proposal supports lowering farm program outlays in light of higher commodity prices. “With higher prices, they say farmers need less support. But who is asking that they also look at production costs?”
He says farmers need a safety net when the price of what they sell is less than what it costs for them to produce it. “No one is talking about production costs. We need to improve the safety net set in the 2002 farm legislation and consider increased production costs.”
He says the administration's proposal concerns ag committee members because it appeals to legislators without strong ties to agriculture and to the general public. Those recommendations would include payment limitations.
“It is appealing to some members of Congress because it saves money,” Moran says. “The administration's proposal could be more damaging than the limits supported by Senator Grassley.” The money-saving card makes it attractive.
He says the secretary of agriculture should be a strong supporter of the nation's farmers instead of a spokesperson for the administration, but said he understands the need for balance in a political context.
Agriculture is too vital for the well-being of rural communities and the security of the nation to give it short shrift, Moran says. “We will work to maintain that safety net.”
He says maintaining the loan, countercyclical payments and direct payments will be priorities, and that legislators face challenges of correcting the misconceptions that the farm program only works for wealthy farmers and that they are unfair to trading partners.
He says trade agreements are critical tools to help sell U.S. farm products but he cautioned against crafting farm policy based on what might become part of a trade agreement.
“Some legislators wanted to delay writing a farm bill until a new WTO agreement is signed. That's the last thing we need to do. We don't want negotiators in Geneva writing farm policy for American farmers. I trust the House and Senate ag committees to develop a farm bill.”
Moran says those policies should abide by current WTO rules and regulations, but waiting, “as some in Congress and the administration want to do,” to write a bill that complies with what WTO might look like in the future, is a bad idea.
He says negotiators must be relentless in assuring market access before agreeing to reduce farm support. “And we can't just reduce tariffs. That grants access on paper, but some countries use other issues, such as GMO and beef hormones,” to limit market access.
“We have an agreement with Japan to ship U.S. beef, but little is being shipped.
“We have to have an understanding with our own negotiators about limits on domestic farm support.”
He says recent discussion with China threatening retaliation gives him hope that the United States “will not continue to play the fool with trade. We should put a tariff on Chinese goods if they do not stop fluctuating their currency.”
Too often in trade agreements, Moran says, “We comply; they don't. We lose.”
He insists that Congress should play a bigger role in assuring that trade agreements protect U.S. interests. “The president should be able to negotiate trade agreements. But Congress needs to look at those agreements carefully.”
He says a market-oriented system is a good idea, but U.S. producers compete with other countries with much higher subsidies. Export assistance, for instance, favors Europeans who provide some 85 percent of the total assistance. The United States provides only 2.5 percent.
“If we eliminate subsidies we'll put ourselves out of business unless the rest of the world changes.”
Moran says the budget will be a critical issue in the coming farm bill debate. “But the farm bill is a collection of issues. The commodity title accounts for only 16 percent of total ag program spending. Most of the rest is for nutrition.
“We have a lot of challenges and we must reach out to members of the House and Senate with less interest in agriculture. We must underline the importance of agriculture,” he says.
“We can't depend on foreign countries for food.”