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COLUMN: Farmers, lawmakers wary of trade promotion authority

The administration reportedly was “extremely pleased” with the one-vote victory (215-214) for the legislation formerly known as Fast Track Authority. After all, the president achieved a feat that eluded Bill Clinton during his last six years in office.

Farm Bureau and the National Corn Growers issued statements praising the House action. But many rank-and-file farmers, jaded from years of promises that exports would bring prosperity, were less than enthusiastic in their response.

“I’m not sure that more trade is the answer,” said a producer who contacted Delta Farm Press. “I think it’s much more important that we get a new farm bill.”

Other farm organizations were more restrained. “Every time we start new trade negotiations, we seem to spend a great deal of time doing damage control,” said the National Cotton Council’s Mark Lange, speaking at Uniroyal’s Cotton College in San Antonio.

“When they were in Doha last month, our own trade negotiators were saying that we have to reduce ‘trade-distorting’ farm subsidies in the new round of the WTO,” he noted. “That could mean lower supplemental payments and loan deficiency payments for our producers.”

Even Rep. Larry Combest, the House Agriculture Committee chairman who threw his support behind the bill before the vote, seemed apprehensive about its long-term effect.

“The president met with me last evening and expressed his personal commitment that America’s farmers and ranchers will be the beneficiaries of trade promotion authority,” he said on Nov. 30. Still, Combest said, he remained concerned that USDA “does not always have farmers’ best interests in mind.”

Last June, Combest said he would not work for the legislation after Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced that the United States had made $10.4 billion in trade-distorting “amber box” payments in 1998.

“USDA’s announcement is the equivalent to a unilateral disarmament that cedes ground and gains nothing in return,” Combest said. “The USDA finding creates a precedent for classifying assistance that will apply to payments also made in 1999 and 2000 and restrict our ability to make those in the future.”

Combest also questioned comments by European Union officials following passage of the House farm bill in October. EU officials said the bill’s provisions did not square with what U.S. negotiators has been telling them about U.S. farm policy.

“The concern continues to grow among members of Congress that our government is willing to capitulate a lot faster than the EU or other countries on behalf of its farmers,” Combest. “I want to see our government as tenacious to make agreements work as they are in getting agreements. I don’t see that happening.”

With the House passage, the legislation now goes to the Senate, which is said to be more favorable to the bill. Majority Leader Tom Daschle has said he won’t bring the legislation up until next year. If Daschle had rushed to pass trade promotion authority legislation ahead of a new farm bill, that would be the last straw for many producers.

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