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Perdue, Sen. Roberts weigh in on farm bill, US-China trade at USDA event

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A timeline for the Senate farm bill and US-China trade tensions were among the issues that surfaced during a USDA event in Manhattan, Kansas featuring Secretary Sonny Perdue, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

In opening remarks on May 30, Roberts noted the headwinds presently facing US agriculture and the stabilizing role the farm bill plays during difficult times.

"We're in a rough patch. This is a bad time; we're in the fifth year in a row of low farm prices," he said, adding, "Farm income has fallen 52 percent, who else in the economy has gone through that?"

Senate bill timeline tipped, 'clear path' seen

On the Senate farm bill, Roberts said he wants to introduce draft legislation as soon as June 6 and expects it to go from committee to the Senate floor in short order. "We have a target date of June 6, and that could be a moving target, so we can get the bill out and have everybody discuss it and hopefully have it on the floor [the] next week," Roberts said.

That could mean the bill would come to the Senate floor the week of June 12, noting it has a "clear path" as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised him he would not file cloture on the bill, which would delay consideration.

With regard to controversial changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – particularly the proposed work requirements for SNAP recipients – that are included in the House farm bill, Roberts was blunt, saying, "I cannot introduce that bill and have it pass," with the SNAP changes. He also responded to those who asked why the nutrition title cannot be decoupled from the greater farm bill. Including the nutrition title is critical to assembling the political coalition needed to pass the bill, he said.

As for details of the Senate bill, they remain unclear. However, Roberts said the legislation will “fix the ARC program to some degree,” referring to the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program that triggers payments to commodity farmers when the average crop revenue in their county drops below a guaranteed level.

But he was critical of a plan pushed by some – likely the plan by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) – that would benefit one region of the country over another. 

"That does not cut it with me," Roberts stated. "Look guys, we either hang together or hang separately."

He pledged no commodity will be hurt by the Senate package.

He also pushed back against a mandatory base update that some are pushing for, saying that would cost Kansas more than 300,000 acres of base and Texas about one million base acres. The base update was reportedly being pushed by some soybean industry lobbyists.

Moran stresses importance of exports, avoiding trade spats

Meanwhile, fellow Kansas lawmaker Moran touched on past and ongoing trade policy discussions he and other farm state lawmakers have had with President Donald Trump. Most important, Moran said, is the promotion of open markets to ensure "we can export what we produce in Kansas around the globe."

After Trump took office, Moran said he advised the president that "you can isolate China by participating in [the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)], you can isolate China by getting a NAFTA agreement concluded, and you can isolate China by getting us out of a tariff battle with them and zero in on the theft of intellectual property, on the theft of our trade secrets, on their cyberattacks on us." Later, Roberts also cited the positives of TPP, remarking that participating in the agreement "is a classic example of what we should be doing."

Trump took a different course on many of those issues, but Moran agreed that China is a problem, saying, "they cheat, they don’t follow the rules but the solution is not a broad tariff battle but it’s a narrow attack on them," cautioning that the US should not alienate other trade partners. Finally, Moran hoped the use of high stakes maneuvers by the administration "is a negotiating tactic that works," but added, "the risks are tremendous" if they do not.

Moran also noted that in his role on the Senate Appropriations Committee, he is directly involved in oversight of USTR. "We're going to be doing a lot of oversight in regard to our trade ambassador, our secretary of commerce in making sure they have the resources to get us to a final conclusion of solid trade agreements, and to have the resources necessary to fight back when it comes to tariffs that China or others may impose on us."

Perdue signals some hope for TPP

Later, Perdue also weighed in on Moran's comments regarding the TPP after an audience member asked about prospects for rejoining it. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement could return as an option for the Trump administration, Perdue reported. While the attention is on bilaterals, he predicted that it is "only a matter of time" before TPP is revisited. "I am optimistic that when we get some early wins ... the president can be persuaded at that point" to revisit TPP, he said.

On the merits of TPP, he added, "I think we can persuade that that can be the most effective trading tool that we can use against China." But Perdue still said his goal is simple: "I just want to sell stuff, and I would be happy to do so either way," a reference to either bilateral trade deals or the multilateral approach.

Besides the farm bill and trade issues, and in response to a question fielded by an attendee affiliated with community banks, Moran touted the recent rollback of certain financial regulations. He said the recent financial reform bill represented "the first time since the passage of Dodd-Frank" that Congress passed and the president signed legislation easing regulations on community bankers. While, "the farm bill provides a safety net," he said, "there another safety net that gets over looked at that’s what our lenders do in small towns across Kansas. When times are tough bankers continue lend."

Finally, Perdue stressed the need for maintaining agricultural research funding. "We cannot slow down, we've seen even the EU and China surpassing us on agricultural research expenditures," he remarked, adding, "We never want to be behind any foreign country when it comes to food production."

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