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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