Washington Insider - Monday

President Goes to AFBF Conference

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

GOP Senators Talk NAFTA with Trump

NAFTA and the importance of the trade deal for U.S. agriculture was the focus for a session Thursday with President Donald Trump and Senate Ag Committee Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and five other Republicans. "I delivered the message that farmers and ranchers need to grow export markets and maintain our status as a reliable supplier, more especially with Canada and Mexico in NAFTA renegotiations," Roberts said in a statement. "The president understands the difficulty farm country is going through. I told him we need a good farm bill and the best trade agreements possible for all sectors of our economy." Roberts indicated Trump "really listened" to the concerns laid out by other Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Cory Gardner of Colorado, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and John Thune of South Dakota.

From the White House perspective, Trump was happy to meet with the lawmakers "about the trade policy priorities both he and the Senate will be focusing on in 2018, including securing more equitable trade deals with our partners, increasing exports, and ensuring American industries are treated fairly around the globe." Trump will address the American Farm Bureau Federation Monday, the first time a sitting president has made such a speech since 1992.

Much of Idaho's 'Ag Gag' Law Struck Down By Court

Most parts of Idaho's "ag gag" law that prohibits undercover investigations at livestock facilities were struck down by the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The state's so-called ag-gag law violates the First and 14th Amendments, in effect upholding the bulk of a 2015 lower court ruling, the court decided. Ag-gag laws ban any filming or photography of farm activity without the consent of a farm's owner.

"We conclude that Idaho's criminalization of misrepresentations to enter a production facility, and ban on audio and video recordings of a production facility's operations, cover protected speech under the First Amendment and cannot survive constitutional scrutiny," the ruling explained. However, the court kept in place two parts of the law that cover misrepresentations made for the purpose of obtaining records or gaining employment on a farm with the intent of exposing conditions on the farm and causing injury to ownership. "The First Amendment right to gather news within legal bounds does not exempt journalists from laws of general applicability," the ruling said.

Washington Insider: President Goes to AFBF Conference

The President will address the annual Farm Bureau conference in Nashville. Bloomberg says farmers “are searching for a sign that their issues mean as much to him as their votes do.”

As he approaches his first anniversary in office, the president is struggling to fulfill his campaign promises to segments of his voting base, including farmers, and his approval ratings have been stuck at historically low levels, Bloomberg said.

These include, especially, threatened withdrawal from NAFTA, immigration restrictions that could choke the flow of migrants to harvest U.S. crops and proposals to cut crop-insurance payments popular in agriculture. These and other administration policies run contrary to the positions represented by Farm Bureau, the biggest U.S. farmer organization.

Still, Trump’s ties to rural voters are far from broken despite some strains, Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska, told Bloomberg. “A lot of farm interests have felt overlooked or ignored in the first year of the Trump administration,” he said. “Farm Bureau is the place where you can get the most people in one place and rally the troops.”

The Farm Bureau has a wide reach, with offices in 2,795 of the nation’s 3,144 counties. It’s long been recognized as the top farmer group in Washington, where agribusiness is listed as the 10th-biggest industry in campaign contributions, just behind energy and ahead of construction, transportation and defense, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. The Farm Bureau spent more than $3 million on lobbying in 2017, second only to Monsanto Co. among organizations that serve farmers.

It’s also long been associated with conservative politics, although farmer tend to be swing voters, especially in states such as North Dakota and Indiana, where incumbent Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly are up for re-election in 2018. Trump won both states last year.

Since the end of a commodities boom in 2013, crop prices have been stable, but low. Futures for corn, the most-valuable crop, closed last year at just over $3.50 a bushel, a fall of 0.4 percent from the previous year. Livestock has fared better, with cattle futures traded in Chicago up 4.7 percent, but well below boom-time prices. That has farm-state members of Congress calling for more generous payments under a new law governing farm subsidies due this year.

In addition, farming is one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy with a trade surplus. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has touted the benefits of the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico, even as the President threatened to scrap the deal. The sluggish economy and at-odds position on trade and other issues, such as immigration, that many farmers see as necessary for their harvests, means farmer support for Trump can’t be taken for granted, said former Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who served as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In general, the President has not talked a lot about farmers, Lugar said. “Somebody probably said to the Trump hierarchy that the president better go to the Farm Bureau and show some interest in agriculture,” Lugar said. “Changes to the corporate tax may create jobs, but this is not reflected in the lives or outlooks of many farmers.”

“One of Trump’s campaign promises was he would get regulations off our back, and you can see that happening,” said Scott VanderWal, a corn and soybean grower near Volga, South Dakota, 50 miles north of Sioux Falls. The president would get more done if Congress were more aligned with him, VanderWal said.

Josh Ogle, a 40-year-old grower of cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat in Lincoln County, Tennessee, just north of the Alabama border, said he is “very pleased with the president’s first year.” His county gave Trump 78% of its vote in 2016.

“Secretary Perdue at USDA, Scott Pruitt at EPA, just to see these men in charge who are bullish about rural America and are taking a common-sense approach to rural America’s problems” by lowering taxes and relaxing regulations to create jobs, he said.

So, it will be important to note what the President says at Nashville, and especially whether he supports or opposes the access to North American markets under NAFTA. The AFBF has a reputation as a strong, strong supporter of access to foreign markets, so the Nashville conversation certainly could be important in this election year, Washington Insider believes.

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