MANHATTAN, Kan. – Trade is the biggest issue facing American agriculture, Sen Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said Thursday at a news conference here prior to the committee’s first hearing on the next farm bill in his home state
“Trade is on the minds of every farmer, every rancher and, I assure you, it is on the mind of Sen. Stabenow and myself,” said, Roberts, a Republican, referring to Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who is also present for the hearing.
“Trade is the biggest danger to the farm industry,” Roberts said, adding that it is also the area that could “quickly turn things around” in the “rough patch” the farm economy is experiencing.
Roberts noted that Trump “wants to concentrate on good bilateral trade agreements.”
But with the Trans Pacific Partnership from which Trump withdrew “in the past” and no one sure what “operation” Trump wants to do on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Roberts said he has asked the White House and Trump’s incoming trade officials to “announce – within weeks, months, if possible – the countries we are working with” so that members of his committee can be of help.
Roberts said that with so much uncertainty about Mexico it is “no secret” that Mexico may buy its agricultural imports from countries other than the United States.
Roberts also said the Senate Agriculture Committee has not yet received the paperwork from the White House so it can schedule a confirmation hearing for Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Agriculture secretary. “Sonny Perdue is just waiting.” If the Senate were to hold a hearing on Perdue he would win quick approval, Roberts added.
Committee aides have said the committee cannot schedule a hearing until it receives the paperwork. The White House is known to be looking at Perdue’s business activities since he left the governorship in 2011. Politico has said repeatedly that nominees are becoming nervous that the White House is not providing them proper backing as the confirmation process proceeds.
Stabenow did not comment on these high-profile issues, but joined with Roberts in saying that they are here to listen to the farmers before deciding what changes need to be made to farm policy. The farm bill provides rural America with an economic development policy that lasts five years and affects far more than farmers with its conservation and water and sewer and broadband programs, Stabenow emphasized.
Roberts repeated previous statements that he wants to finish the next farm bill before the current one expires on September 30, 2018.
Roberts and Stabenow both noted that the current bill has saved more money than expected. Stabenow lamented that congressional budget procedures do not allow the committee to apply savings from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to farm programs. The SNAP savings have occurred because the economy has improved and the program is serving fewer people.
Roberts said he could not promise that there would be no cuts, but Congress will keep in mind there are problems in farm country and that the current bill has saved money.
“This blueprint is different because of the tough times we are facing right now,” Roberts said, comparing the current atmosphere with 2014, when the last bill was written.
Asked whether the 2014 farm bill would be “tweaked” or changed in a bigger fashion, Roberts asked whether the reporter meant “tweaked” or “tweeted.”
Turning serious, Roberts said, “We need to ask farmers what is working and what is not. Depending on what they say, we will try to fix it.” The fixes could be “a little more dramatic” than what some people expect, but keeping what is working will maintain the “banner of predictability and stability” that farmers say they want, Roberts said.
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