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House prepares for trade battle

With its version of the farm bill passed and being considered by the Senate, the House of Representatives now turns its attention to more legislation that could dramatically affect farmers.

H.R. 3005, the Bipartisan Trade Promotion Act of 2001, would restore the fast-track trade negotiation authority the President lost in 1994. Congress could approve or reject those treaties but could not amend them.

Although it passed the House Committee on Ways and Means by a 26 to 13 vote, H.R. 3005 may not have an easy romp through the entire body. Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he supported fast-track legislation in the past but might not this time.

“It is not clear whether the (Bush) administration is committed to getting the best deal possible for U.S. farmers and ranchers, businesses and other job interests,” he said.

Larry Combest, R-Texas, House Agriculture Committee chairman, doesn't like the fact that administration agriculture officials have criticized the new House farm bill in talks with the European Union.

“Reaction to the House farm bill by the European Union's commissioner raises a red flag and a huge, huge question mark — what have our negotiators been saying? There is nothing in the House farm bill that artificially drives production, and nothing that takes away from our trading capabilities. The counter-cyclical approach to farm supports is almost unanimous among farmers, but is apparently rejected by U.S. negotiators. America's trade negotiators must not give up just to appease other countries,” Combest said.

However, Bill Thomas, R-Calif., Ways and Means Committee chairman, calls H.R. 3005 carefully crafted and well-balanced. “When nations open their borders to trade, all parties benefit,” he said. “It will restore the president's fundamental ability to speak for the United States in negotiating agreements in our country's interest.”

Among its agricultural provisions, H.R. 3005 promises to:

  • Preserve non-trade distorting programs that support American family farms and rural communities, including food assistance, market development, and export credit programs.
  • Seek the elimination of government policies that create price-depressing surpluses.
  • Seek to end unjustified restrictions, such as labeling, on products derived from new technology, including biotechnology, and to end unjustified sanitary/phytosanitary requirements, including those based upon unsound science.
  • Require the U.S. trade representative to consult with the House and Senate Agriculture Committees during negotiations, and prior to initialing any agreement involving agriculture.
  • Support reducing or eliminating subsidies that decrease market opportunities for U.S. agriculture or unfairly distort markets to the detriment of the United States.
  • Require the U.S. trade representative to preserve the ability of the United States to vigorously enforce its trade laws.
  • Direct U.S. negotiators to improve import relief mechanisms that recognize the unique characteristics of import-sensitive perishable or cyclical products, while eliminating foreign practices that adversely affect trade in these products.
  • Direct U.S. negotiators to provide reasonable adjustment periods for import-sensitive products.
  • Target tariff and subsidy reductions for products subject to high foreign tariffs or subsidies, emphasizing products where U.S. tariffs are lower than those throughout the world.

In a recent speech to the National Chicken Council, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman criticized the newly passed House farm bill, saying it should have a broader focus, while praising the Trade Promotion Authority Act.

“The Congress should approve this legislation. We need to send a strong message to our trading partners around the world that the United States is committed to free trade and opening markets,” Veneman said.

She pushes for new trading opportunities, she said. “Every time the president talks about trade, he talks about agriculture. And every time he talks about agriculture he talks about trade,” Veneman said.

“Some have suggested that the answer to fixing trade agreements is to stop negotiating, to throw the cards on the table and fold our hand. They couldn't be more wrong. The United States needs to regain its leadership position at the international trade-negotiating table. With this new administration, we have new opportunities to better help our farmers through trade negotiations.”

In remarks made at the White House in a meeting with agricultural leaders in June, President Bush said he is committed to knocking down trade barriers and opening markets for U.S. products. He urged them to support the Trade Promotion Authority Act.

“I realized how important it was when I was at the Summit of the Americas. We have countries in our hemisphere saying, ‘Will you trade with us?’ And I say, you bet. It's a free-trading administration, so long as everything is level and fair. And they say, ‘But how can we know you can trade with us when we negotiate a deal and you don't have the authority to strike it without having to submit the bill to every single amendment there could be up on the Hill?’ You see, they recognize that other presidents used to have trade promotion authority. And now I don't. And we're missing some great opportunities, not only in our hemisphere, but around the world,” Bush said.

Expect a tough, divisive debate on the legislation when it reaches the House floor. Even many Republicans dislike losing their option to attach amendments to trade treaties.

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