Unless the Bush administration can win major concessions in a revival of the Doha Round negotiations, it shouldn't look to the House Agriculture Committee for help in passing a new WTO agreement.
That's the impression a group of 200 or so farmers took away from a town hall meeting in Pine Bluff, Ark., Jan. 25, which featured House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson as a special guest and speaker.
“There's pressure on us to change the farm bill because ‘that's the only way we can get a trade deal,’” said Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat. “Now, I'm sorry, but I've had enough of these trade deals. And unless we can get something good out of it, I don't give a darn if we get one.”
Peterson's blunt statement drew applause at the meeting, which was organized by U.S. Reps. Marion Berry and Mike Ross, Democrats who represent the principal row crop farming areas of Arkansas.
Neither are currently members of the Agriculture Committee, but Peterson, who became chairman when Democrats won a majority of seats in the House last November, said he is considering naming an advisory council that would consist of Berry, Ross and “four or five other members from different parts of the country.”
Peterson did not address the WTO negotiations in his opening comments at the Pine Bluff meeting, but quickly warmed to the subject after Bob Bremer, a USDA Farm Service Agency staff member from Brinkley, Ark., asked about spending cuts that have lowered payments to farmers.
“They did that in reconciliation, and I fought them on that,” said Peterson. “You know we're the only part of the government that saved money ($17 billion below projections for the 2002 farm bill). But they took 11 percent from us in agriculture and only 1 percent from other people whose spending increased.
“It (The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 2005) wasn't fair, and I think it's one of the many reasons I'm now the chairman, he said.”
Congress must become more fiscally responsible in its handling of nation's finances, he said. “It's going to put me in a bind (on farm bill spending,)” he said. “But we believe we have to go back to ‘pay as you go.’ We cannot continue to pretend that these budget deficits are not a problem.”
The budget reconciliation legislation “did not get us any place,” he said. “It did not reduce the deficit. It just inflicted pain where they wanted it to.”
Peterson said the reconciliation issue reminded him of the administration's offer to give up 60 percent of U.S. farm subsidies to try to win concessions from other WTO members in the Doha negotiations.
The administration has also set its sight on the U.S. sugar program to try to help smooth the way to reaching a Doha Round agreement, he said. (Peterson's 7th Congressional District includes several sugar beet producers.)
“If they can get us to cut back on farm subsidies in the farm bill, then that makes it easier for them to make a trade deal,” said Peterson. “They've been trying to get rid of the sugar program because sugar is the biggest problem to negotiate. So they're trying to do us in. Microsoft and all these other big guys want these deals, and we're in the way.”
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab has said she would speak with other trade ministers at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, to try to help re-start the Doha Round negotiations.
But Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he saw little chance of a breakthrough because “very complex issues” must be resolved before the negotiations, which were suspended last July, will likely resume.
Peterson drew another round of applause when, in warning farmers to expect more pressure to put new payment limit restrictions in the next farm bill, he said he thought agriculture would be “better off not having any payment limits at all.”
“I expect the president will come after payment limits again,” he said, noting he had spent the last two or three weeks in meeting with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, now the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, who has a different view on the issue.
“I've already received two calls from Sen. Grassley (Iowa's other senator who has introduced several payment limit bills). “We will be under a lot of pressure to reduce the limits.”
Peterson said he has discussed the issue with Secretary Johanns and friends in the upper Midwest. “I've asked them if they wanted to grow rice and cotton in this country or not. To me, food is a national security issue, and we need to be sensible about this.
“I've told some people that if they want to continue pushing stricter payment limits, maybe we should take rice and cotton and have a different deal for them than what we have for the other crops.”