President Barack Obama and top administration officials are counting on the nation’s farmers to make noise on Capitol Hill, hoping it will win some votes in Congress for the president’s embattled trade proposal.
In an interview with McClatchy, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that U.S. farmers could be among the biggest beneficiaries of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation trade pact that could scrap or reduce tariffs for farm goods.
But before the tariffs go away, Vilsack said farmers and farm groups that stand to benefit from more trade in Pacific Rim countries need to step up their lobbying efforts to match the intensity of trade opponents.
“Frankly, those who are opposed to trade agreements, for whatever reason, have been very successful and very well-organized. . . . The reality is that because the opponents have been organized, members of Congress may be hearing disproportionately from those who are opposed,” Vilsack said.
While the administration says the Trans-Pacific Partnership would help farmers, opponents say it would do little but aid large corporations and send more U.S. jobs overseas.
“The TPP might benefit a handful of big ag middlemen, but it would be extremely damaging to America’s family farmers,” said Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of farm, labor, environmental, consumer and human rights groups that opposes the fast-track plan.
He said opposition to the president’s trade agenda “is incredibly strong and diverse” and growing stronger by the day.
“When people hear about it, they’re outraged,” Stamoulis said.
Froman cited many examples of how tariffs are hurting farmers:
– In California, growers sent $8 billion of tree nuts to global destinations last year, with nearly a quarter of those exports to Trans-Pacific Partnership countries, some of which impose a tariff of up to 30 percent.
– Similarly, Texas beef and veal growers face tariffs of up to 50 percent in some TPP countries.
– Missouri soybeans pay a tariff of up to 30 percent.
– And Washington state growers contend with tariffs of up to 17 percent on their world-famous apples.
“You can just go state by state, and product by product. . . . What we’re trying to do through this trade agreement is level the playing field for our exports,” Froman said, predicting that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will end up creating “great new opportunities” for U.S. farmers.
He said it would still be months before Congress votes on the trade pact, adding: “We’re still negotiating. But we’re making a lot of progress, almost across the board now.”
Vilsack insisted the Trans-Pacific Partnership would mean a big boost for U.S. farm income.
“We are confident that billions of dollars of additional agriculture export opportunities will be available once the TPP is negotiated and completed,” he said.
To get the deal passed, Vilsack said, farmers must be engaged “in making the phone calls, sending the emails, making the visits and going to the town-hall meetings so that members of Congress hear another side.”
Many farm groups welcome the prospect of a trade pact that would lower tariffs and help them do more business in Asia.
“With 95 percent of the world’s population living outside the United States, access to markets is extremely important. . . . It’s great for agriculture,” said Matt McInerney, executive vice president of the Western Growers Association, a trade group based in Irvine, Calif., that represents growers of fresh fruits and vegetables and tree nuts.
Before the trade pact comes up for a vote, Obama first wants Congress to give him fast-track trade authority, a plan that would bar members from amending or filibustering a trade pact once it’s negotiated.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., predicted the Senate will pass the plan before it breaks for a Memorial Day recess, but the proposal will face an uphill fight in the House of Representatives in June.
Opponents hope to stall the debate, convinced that further delays will work in their favor. Administration officials are hoping for a speedy wrapup.
“Clearly we’d like to see this move as quickly as possible,” Froman said. “Our trading partners watch our political process here very closely.”
One of the biggest tasks facing the administration is finding more Democratic votes in the House for the fast-track bill. So far, only 13 House Democrats have made public statements indicating they plan to back the bill.
Froman expects support to grow in the coming weeks.
“As I’ve been traveling around, whether it’s in Nebraska or the state of Washington or Wisconsin, doing agricultural roundtables with Democratic members of the House, there’s a lot of receptivity there to TPP, because they understand the impact on their constituents,” Froman said.
Vilsack said there are fewer farm-based congressional districts as a result of redistricting in recent years, increasing the need for farmers and farm groups to get more vocal on Capitol Hill.