Farm Groups Are Failing in the Free-Trade Fight

Most agriculture interests support Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but they haven’t been able to persuade many Democrats.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 14: Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, participates in a news conference at the House Triangle to call for the release of the food safety chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Thursday, May 14, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
May 19, 2015, 4 p.m.

The Sen­ate vote last week on pro­ceed­ing with de­bate on Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity demon­strated the lim­ited power that ag­ri­cul­ture groups now have with Demo­crats in Con­gress.

Most of the ag­ri­cul­tur­al es­tab­lish­ment—the Amer­ic­an Farm Bur­eau Fed­er­a­tion and the ma­jor meat, com­mod­ity, and ag­ribusi­ness groups—fa­vor free trade agree­ments be­cause they would re­duce tar­iffs and oth­er bar­ri­ers to U.S. farm and food products.

The Na­tion­al Farm­ers Uni­on is the only ma­jor farm group in op­pos­i­tion. The Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing NFU ac­know­ledges that trade is good for the fam­ily farm­ers it rep­res­ents but says it will lead to an in­crease in the trade de­fi­cit and not deal with cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion. The Amer­ic­an Sug­ar Al­li­ance, which rep­res­ents cane and beet grow­ers and has ex­per­i­enced more im­ports un­der pre­vi­ous free trade agree­ments, is neut­ral.

But when the Sen­ate voted 65 to 33 to move to de­bate, only 13 Demo­crats joined all the Re­pub­lic­ans to vote for it and only two Demo­crats serving on the Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee—Mi­chael Ben­net of Col­or­ado and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota—and one Demo­crat on the Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee—Di­anne Fein­stein of Cali­for­nia—voted “yes.”

Sev­en Demo­crats on the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee voted against the meas­ure: com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Debbie Stabenow of Michigan; Sher­rod Brown of Ohio; Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota; Kirsten Gil­librand of New York; Robert Ca­sey of Pennsylvania; Joe Don­nelly of In­di­ana; and Patrick Leahy of Ver­mont, who also serves on the Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee.

Four Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of the Ag­ri­cul­ture Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee joined Leahy to vote against the meas­ure: Jeff Merkley of Ore­gon, who is sub­com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber; Jon Test­er of Montana; Tom Ud­all of New Mex­ico; and Tammy Bald­win of Wis­con­sin.

The reas­ons for these votes are var­ied. Ben­net and Fein­stein come from states with oth­er in­dus­tries that see ad­vant­ages in free trade. Heitkamp’s North Dakota also be­ne­fits from ag­ri­cul­tur­al ex­ports and doesn’t have many in­dus­tries or work­ers hurt by free trade—ex­cept for sug­ar grow­ers.

The Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors who voted against TPA come mostly from states whose man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries have lost plants and jobs since pre­vi­ous agree­ments came in­to ef­fect. Some have ideo­lo­gic­al con­cerns.

Stabenow told the North Amer­ic­an Ag­ri­cul­tur­al Journ­al­ists on April 28 that Ja­pan makes it hard to sell Amer­ic­an cars there and that cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion by Asi­an coun­tries has cost five mil­lion Amer­ic­an jobs.

“We need to make sure we are ex­port­ing our products, not our jobs,” Stabenow said.

With the Sen­ate likely to garner a ma­jor­ity on TPA this week, the ac­tion moves to the House, where prom­in­ent ag­gies also ques­tion TPA and trade agree­ments.

House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Col­lin Peterson says that his de­cision on wheth­er to vote for TPA will de­pend on wheth­er U.S. trade ne­go­ti­at­ors achieve a deal with Canada to re­form its dairy sup­ply man­age­ment sys­tem and provide mar­ket ac­cess for U.S. dairy pro­du­cers.

“I have not taken a po­s­i­tion on TPA,” the Min­nesota Demo­crat told the ag­ri­cul­tur­al journ­al­ists. “I’m still ne­go­ti­at­ing with [U.S. Trade Rep­res­ent­at­ive Mi­chael] Fro­man,” adding that he hadn’t got­ten a “bot­tom-line” an­swer from him yet. A spokes­wo­man con­firmed this week that Peterson’s po­s­i­tion re­mains the same.

The North Amer­ic­an Free Trade Agree­ment with Mex­ico and Canada “was a bad deal for sug­ar and for dairy,” he said, adding that he was told the ex­ports to those coun­tries would double, but in­stead the im­ports have doubled.

Peterson said that mar­ket ac­cess for rice and beef needs to be re­solved and that he thinks that’s “doable,” but he is not sure about a deal with Canada on dairy.

The Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, Peterson said, needs to ad­dress the dairy prob­lem that was caused in NAF­TA when Canada’s sup­ply man­age­ment pro­gram for dairy and im­port re­stric­tions was not ad­dressed.

He said he is par­tic­u­larly of­fen­ded that Ca­na­dian dairy co-ops have been us­ing the sup­ply man­age­ment sys­tem to make big profits and then buy up pro­cessing fa­cil­it­ies in the United States.

“That is the res­ult of NAF­TA. If we don’t fix that in this deal it will nev­er get fixed,” he ad­ded.

Re­pub­lic­an House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Con­away of Texas, who fa­vors TPA, told the journ­al­ists, “We are not get­ting the Ca­na­dians to the table without TPA.”

Demo­crat­ic Rep. Rosa De­Lauro of Con­necti­c­ut, a former chair­wo­man (and cur­rent mem­ber) of the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee, has been one of the most vig­or­ous op­pon­ents of TPA. On May 13, Rep. Chel­lie Pin­gree of Maine, an­oth­er Demo­crat on the sub­com­mit­tee, joined De­Lauro to de­mand that trade ne­go­ti­at­ors re­lease the draft of the food safety sec­tion of the TPP agree­ment.

De­Lauro and Pin­gree said they fear that TPP will pave the way for cheap­er im­ports and al­low for­eign cor­por­a­tions to chal­lenge reg­u­la­tions such as food safety stand­ards in the U.S. if they feel the rules are a bar­ri­er to trade and profit.

“This is com­pletely counter to what the con­sumer is ask­ing for,” Pin­gree said. “It’s counter to what would be a great op­por­tun­ity for Amer­ic­an farm­ers to move in­to a mar­ket where they are paid a little bet­ter, they get to sell more food loc­ally and change the en­vir­on­ment­al re­la­tion­ship with our food sys­tem.”

One reas­on that Demo­crats may not fol­low the ag­ri­cul­ture lob­bies in sup­port­ing TPA and trade agree­ments is that few Demo­crats now come from rur­al states and dis­tricts. But even when they do, man­u­fac­tur­ing and con­sumer in­terests may trump the ag­ri­cul­ture card.

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