The Bush administration appears to be hitching its wagon to the star of trade in hopes that it will pull U.S. farmers out of their current financial morass.

In public appearances in recent weeks, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has repeated what is becoming the department's mantra: “Increased trade opportunities are the key to prosperity for U.S. farmers.”

The secretary, who spent part of her early career with USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, has been speaking out to try to generate more support for the Trade Promotion Authority legislation that President Bush has included as “must-pass” on his legislative agenda.

(The House Ways and Means Committee passed a Trade Promotion Authority bill in early October. Formerly known as Fast-Track Authority, the TPA bill faces an uncertain future in the full House.)

The secretary has also made agricultural trade a prominent feature of USDA's recent Food and Agricultural Report and of her testimony before congressional committees. She may have given a glimpse of how important she considers trade in a speech earlier this year:

“Expanding trade opportunities present clear implications for domestic policy. Domestic policies that artificially boost prices also reduce domestic consumption, reduce our competitiveness in world markets and make our domestic markets more attractive to foreign producers. A sound policy… is one that expands export opportunities, rather than reducing our ability to compete.

“That's not to say we shouldn't help farmers and ranchers when prices and income plummet unexpectedly. But, when we do, we should help in ways that aren't counterproductive.”

She said that among the “core elements” of the administration's agricultural policy are an aggressive trade policy that includes new trade negotiating authority, a new trade round in the WTO, a Free Trade of the Americas agreement and aggressively monitoring policies that distort trade.

But some are beginning to question the direction the administration is taking its trade emphasis.

“Philosophically, I think trade is wonderful, but I have this growing concern that our government is willing to capitulate a lot faster than the European Union or other countries in behalf of farmers,” Rep. Larry Combest said in an interview.

“There's beginning to be a lack of confidence that trade agreements are in the best interest of the American producer. I want to see our government as tenacious to make certain agreements work as much as they are in getting them in the first place.”

Some agricultural economists are also questioning how much benefit trade agreements are to farmers. “Looking back over the past 25 years, we haven't made a lot of improvements in the export numbers with all the different programs we have had,” said one economist.

“For years, some argued that if we would stop the set-aside programs and boost production, we would gain marketshare. If you look at Freedom to Farm, it's obvious that hasn't happened.”

What does it matter if the administration favors trade-enhancing programs over commodity programs? This administration, unlike the previous one, has shown that it won't just go along with new farm legislation if Congress approves. As it demonstrated with last summer's disaster assistance bill, the Bush administration will block a new farm bill if it doesn't like what it sees.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com