Republicans Hope Trade Fears Fuel Farm Bill

Lawmakers from agriculture-heavy districts are nervously eyeing the looming tariff war with China.

Soybeans sorted by weight at Taylor Seed Farm near White Cloud, Kan., on April 5
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
April 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

With the farm bill only a week old and already being written off as an impossible feat this year, House Republicans have begun selling it in a new way: The bill, they say, could protect farmers if they incur losses in the event of a trade war.

Republicans, particularly those who represent agriculture-heavy districts and states, have said President Trump’s announced tariffs against China and the Asian powerhouse’s proposed retaliatory tariffs have caused anxiety in U.S. fields and ranches.

Pork, sorghum, and soy stand to be hit particularly hard should China follow through on its threat of retaliation. As a result, Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway said he has tried to convey to the president that his trade negotiations should be handled swiftly.

“My constant message is, ‘Mr. President, don’t screw it up, but get it done quickly,’” Conaway said. “I try to help remind anybody that’s going over to say so.”

That’s just what the message was at a meeting of agriculture-focused members at the White House last week. Furthermore, some members told the administration that the farm bill could be critical in the event of a long trade war.

“I pointed out to him, and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn, that it’s important that we do a new farm bill or we extend the present farm bill, because we need the safety net in the farm bill as we go through what will be some turbulent times as this negotiation,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, the former chairman of the Agriculture Committee. “I think he understood that, and I think everybody in the room agreed with that.”

Trump reportedly proposed subsidies for farmers in the event they are financially harmed by a trade war, but some Republican members at the meeting retorted that farmers do not want welfare.

Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota—a Senate candidate who represents the congressional district with the largest acreage of soybean farms, according to the Agriculture Department's 2012 agricultural census—suggested a more nuanced response. “Farmers’ message over to the president isn’t so much that we don’t want any subsidies; the message is we prefer trade to a handout,” he said.

Cramer said the farm bill could be a good vehicle for those subsidies, and that Democrats may also be receptive to that message. He said he has heard some hand-wringing among his Democratic colleagues who are worried that casting a vote against a farm bill could lead to political repercussions against them in the upcoming midterm elections.

“It does present a vehicle for some sort of assistance. Unfortunately, I think that’s less than fortunate because the farm bill is tricky enough, and it’s not like it’s gotten less tricky,” he said. “Although I will tell you, if there’s something a little extra in there for protection in a protracted trade war, it makes it even harder for Democrats from farm states to just say, ‘Hell no.’ A lot of them are in a tough spot.”

Democrats have by and large disengaged from the farm-bill talks over objections to provisions that would impose work requirements on low-income citizens who collect aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps.

Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, told AgWeb that he’s “not gonna trust one damn thing [committee Republicans] say from now on,” because they were not forthright about what they would do to the SNAP program.

The House bill will be marked up in committee Wednesday and faces hurdles to being passed in the House. In the Senate, it is likely a nonstarter, because any bill would need Democratic votes to pass.

Meanwhile, members are still pushing back, albeit gently for the most part, against the president’s tariffs, and urging him to negotiate with China to minimize the chances the country will impose retaliatory tariffs on the agriculture sector.

“There’s a level of anxiety in the discussion on trade,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson, a member of the Agriculture Committee. “But the administration I think understands that, so to speak, agriculture is low-hanging fruit and that’s the first place a country will look for retaliatory tariffs.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts told National Journal that Trump placed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, in charge of taking another look at his trade policies on agriculture.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, are you enabling me to go out and talk to the aggie press and everybody else that’s worried about trade and tariffs, that you’re going to take another look?’ He said, ‘Yes, we’re going to deputize Bob Lighthizer and Larry Kudlow,’” Roberts said.

On Friday, a group of more than 40 House Republicans sent a letter to Trump asking that he support farmers, particularly those who work with pork, soy, and sorghum, if they take a financial hit due to Chinese retaliation.

“It is no secret that some of your strongest support comes from communities that rely on agriculture for survival,” the letter read. “All our hard-won gains in Farm Country, however, are at serious risk of being wiped away because China is threatening retaliation against American farmers.”

Alex Rogers contributed to this article.
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