Washington Insider -- Thursday

Support for Diplomacy

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

Rep. Combest Signals Many Differences Remain on Farm Bill

Differences between the House and Senate on the next farm bill appear to be broader than many think, according to comments from House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, in an interview this week.

"We probably have two titles that are not an issue with... the remaining issues are across the board," Conaway said in an interview with IEG Policy.

As for comments by Senate Ag Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Panel Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., that the crunch time on the farm bill is really in December, Conaway said, "I couldn't disagree more," adding, "I don't want to talk about anything other than getting this done" by September 30. "I don't want to talk about anything other than getting this done within the time that's on the clock that's running right now, period," Conaway said. "And anybody who's going to talk like that maybe are signaling they've given up, but there's no give up on this. You don't see me giving up."

As for how he measures success in the bill, Conaway said, “One of my guideposts is to strengthen work requirements and enforcement (food stamps) and we've got to have a better Title 1 than we've currently got and the Senate bill didn't do either of those. I believe the House bill did." And strengthening that farmer safety net is key, especially with the big drop in farm income that has been experienced in U.S. agriculture, he noted.

Asked if he needed to have a farm bill supported by a majority of Republicans, Conaway said, "I can't bring back a bill that gets more Democratic votes than Republican votes. I'm not going to do that."

He reiterated that he and House Ag Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., negotiated all titles of the House version of the farm bill except the nutrition/SNAP title. "That story got lost in the fight (on the House farm bill vote)."

USDA Announces More Rural Electric Infrastructure Investments

Another $398.5 million worth of investments to update rural electric infrastructure were announced by USDA Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett today (Sept. 19).

USDA building, Washington, US against a blue sky

“Reliable and affordable electricity is undeniably a necessity in today’s world,” Hazlett said. “Under the leadership of Secretary Sonny Perdue, USDA is committed to being a strong partner in keeping our rural communities connected to this essential infrastructure.”

The vehicle being used for the investments is USDA's Electric Infrastructure Loan Program (EILP). The program helps finance generation, transmission and distribution projects, along with system improvements and energy conservation projects in communities with 10,000 or fewer residents.

USDA notes that of the $398.5 million, $43.7 million will be used for investments in smart grid technology.

Washington Insider: Support for Diplomacy

The Washington Post is reporting this week on what it sees as an unusual development — support from the nation’s leading senior active and retired military officers who are “increasingly arguing for the United States to spend more on preventing wars rather than fighting them.” The Post calls this the “opposite of the White House’s proposed approach.”

The Senate passed a large spending bill Tuesday that includes a full year of budget increases for the Pentagon but only temporary funding, continuing at current levels, for the State Department and USAID. The Post notes that this is the second year in a row that the White House has proposed slashing funding for diplomacy and development by about 30%. For the moment, Congress has again forestalled such drastic cuts, but the fight is far from over.

That’s why about a dozen retired three- and four-star generals and admirals toured Capitol Hill last week, looking ahead to the next budget fight — with a new Congress — after the November elections. They represent a group of more than 200 retired senior military officers who are working to lobby Congress and the Trump administration to support money for diplomacy and development, in an effort to avoid the “need to send in the troops.”

Funding for diplomacy and development is an easy target since there’s no strong domestic constituency to advocate for it. As a result, military officers who have seen the costs when diplomacy fails “must step up and make the case,” former Central Command chief David Petraeus told paper.

“Each of the last three presidents has wanted to do nation-building at home rather than overseas. This is a familiar and understandable desire, but then it collides with reality,” he said. “The reality is we are still engaged and need to stay engaged in a number of countries around the world where the appropriate strategy is not just military action.”

Petraeus is among the hundreds of retired military officers who have joined up with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which convenes supporters of development and diplomacy funding for events all around the country. The case for spending money on aid to avoid military intervention “must be made to ordinary voters as well,” members of the group told the Post.

But the focus on Congress right now is crucial because congressional foreign policy leadership is about to turn over in a way not seen in decades with the passing last month of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ari. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, R-Calif., are retiring. The November election could result in Democrats taking over several national security-related committees.

In addition, the group believes that Congressmen are even more sensitive about the funding around election times when using US taxpayer money for things such as economic aid, food aid, civil society support and humanitarian support in war zones comes under greater scrutiny. The generals’ and admirals’ argument is that supporting these programs reduces extremism and builds stability that will save the United States money in the long run.

“There’s a difficulty for members to explain to their constituency why this is important,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald. “I tell them you can either spend that up front now or 10 times that amount later.”

Or as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former member of USGLC’s National Security Advisory Council, famously said, if the State Department’s funding gets cut, “then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Other active-duty military leaders have also publicly made the case for strong diplomacy and development budgets, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and Vice Chairman Gen. Paul J. Selva, who said in June: “Our global leadership is important for many reasons, and not the least of which is that diplomacy and development are a hell of a lot cheaper than defense.”

The first time the Trump administration proposed slashing the State Department and USAID budgets, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R., S.C., chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, called it a “doctrine of retreat.” When the new Congress gets seated next year, they must heed the calls of our military leaders and reject Trump’s penny-wise, pound-foolish approach, the Post said.

So, we will see. Support for diplomats is often a tough sell, since they frequently bring unwelcome news and advice. And, support for developing countries is even more difficult because they frequently turn out to be market competitors, to some degree. Still, the Officers’ group is widely seen as highly credible and would be expected to have a positive impact on funding support. This is an important debate that could help promote future growth of ag markets and one that producers should watch closely as it emerges, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN’s Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com