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U.S. agriculture facing more skirmishes with new Congress

A more urban-oriented Congress is likely to bring “a lot more skirmishes over subsidies” and other farm programs, says Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a member of the Appropriation Committee's Agriculture Subcommittee.

“Before the recent elections, I would've said the 2007 farm bill would be similar to the current farm bill: some fine-tuning, but not a lot of changes,” he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual meeting at Amelia Island, Fla.

“Now, we have a new Congress that has more of an urban base, and the urban newspapers have decided that one of the problems with the national budget is spending for agriculture programs. So I believe we'll have a lot more skirmishes over subsidies and the movement toward fuel independence.”

Kingston, noting that many agriculture committee/subcommittee posts will now be held by urban members, said, “We're going to have our work cut out for us to make this Congress aware of what our issues are in agriculture.”

He said there likely will also be an examination of the Conservation Reserve Program. “This program now has something over 37 million acres enrolled, and you and I know a lot of that is not highly erodible land. A lot of people are beginning to ask, ‘Why’d you take all that land out of cultivation?'

“I think things like that, payment limitations, food safety, animal identification, country of origin labeling, and other issues will get more scrutiny in the new Congress.”

Elected vice chairman of the House Republication Conference in 2004 and rated by the National Journal as the “most conservative House member” in 2005, Kingston sees “a lot of issues facing us” with the new Democrat-controlled Congress:

Minimum wage: “The Democrats have promised to raise the minimum wage. I oppose it. In 1980, 15 percent of U.S. workers were on minimum wage; today, it's just 2.5 percent — of which 15 percent are teenagers, 40 percent have never held a job in their lives, and 30 percent are part-time.

“A government-controlled, government-mandated wage generally means small businesses are going to lose jobs…When the minimum wage is increased, there's a wage push in all directions, and that's what causes a wage/price spiral.

“The minimum wage is going to be the first casualty of the Democrat Congress.”

Trade: “The Central Americas Freed Trade Agreement was passed last year with a margin of only two votes. Most of those who won election this year are against multi-national trade agreements, and I don't see any more of those happening for a while under the Bush administration.”

The war in Iraq: “I don't really know where they (Democrats) stand on the war, because they have the ability to be anywhere — one day, they're for immediate withdrawal, the next they want redeployment, the next something else.”

Much of the progress being made in Iraq politically, economically, and rule of law, isn't publicized, Kingston said.

“Since 2003, 33,000 businesses have filed for licenses in Iraq; there are 44 television stations, where there once was just one; over 100 newspapers, where there was just one; and a port, never used under Saddam Hussein, that now handles 40 ships a month. All this we never hear about.”

Noting that the United States is at war with Sunnis and Shiites “who've been fighting for thousands of years,” he said, “if we don't have the staying power to remain in there for 10 or 15 years, we ought to be realistic and say, ‘This is not a war for us.’

“I believe immediate withdrawal would be disastrous. I don't see how we can deal with Iran and North Korea if we're known as the cut-and-run country. But we still have to be realistic in terms of what the American people are willing to bear, and I don't think we've quite had that national conversation.”

Taxes: The 2003 Republican tax cuts “changed the economy” and created 6.5 million new jobs, Kingston said. “Unemployment is now 4.4 percent, one of the lowest rates in 30 years, and we've had 20 quarters of successive economic growth.

“The Democrats want to eliminate these tax cuts. That could mean the marriage tax penalty could come back, the alternative minimum tax could increase, the tax on dividends may come back, and your income tax could increase by about 3 percent, because regardless of what tax bracket you're in, you got about a 3 percent income tax cut (from the 2003 changes).”

Of particular concern in the agribusiness community, Kingston said, is the estate tax, labeled the “death tax.”

“We should come up with some kind of compromise on this. I support eliminating it, but I also have supported a $5 million threshold, which would eliminate the death tax for about 94 percent of the people in the U.S.”

Offshore drilling: “The world has changed tremendously” since the 1970s when oil exploration was blocked in the outer continental shelf, Kingston says, “but we're still looking at things from the 1970s perspective.

“To say we can't drill offshore less invasively and more safely than 30 to 40 years ago is ridiculous. I believe we need to open the outer continental shelf and that we need to explore in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.

“With all the wackos in the Middle East, I'd feel a lot better drilling our own oil rather than depending on them…And we need to get into ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, and other alternative fuels.”

Global warming: “I know Al Gore and everyone in Hollywood believe it's real, but a lot of scientists say it's not real. I think we need to have a fair, balanced analysis.

“Thirty years ago, everyone was worried about a coming ice age.”

Kingston said one reason the United States has not signed the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions is that countries like China and India are exempt. “They don't have to comply; they don't even have to report their emissions.”

President Bush “has done a lot toward emissions reduction, but has received almost zero credit for it.

The Clear Skies Initiative has reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent in the past 15 years, Kingston said, and other programs are reducing pollution in many sectors.

“It's one of those issues we need to get educated on, and one that's going to be a hot topic over the next few years. I believe there is going to be a greater push for (these programs) in Congress.”

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