Obama courts ag, industry groups for TPP push

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2015 - For all the battles that the Obama administration and agriculture have waged in recent years, the White House wasted no time making it clear how important agriculture will be to President Obama's economic legacy - congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The White House staff seated Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, beside Obama at a meeting of business leaders at the Agriculture Department on Tuesday, ensuring Stallman would be front and center in the photos.

The agreement is so important to ag, and also ag is so important to getting it across the finish line in terms of getting the votes, that's the message that I came with, Stallman told Agri-Pulse in an interview after the hour-long meeting.

Agriculture always is important to trade policy for the simple reason that the sector is such a large part of the economy in so many senators' states, especially in the Midwest and Plains, and in rural House districts. And the margins in both the House and Senate on TPP are likely to be razor thin in both the House and Senate, especially since Republicans from tobacco-growing states, like North Carolina, are outraged that the agreement, announced Monday, failed to protect U.S. tobacco products from foreign anti-smoking regulations.

The tobacco issue alone could cost TPP the support of North Carolina's two senators, both of whom provided critical support for the Trade Promotion Authority bill this spring. It takes 60 votes to move legislation in the Senate, and TPA got 62.

Together we can feed the Bees"

The administration, meanwhile, is dribbling out details about the potential impact of the trade pact, which Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday would mean “billions of dollars in additional opportunity” for farmers. The full text will be made public in about 30 days. Here's an overview released by USTR.

Japan has agreed to cut its tariff on beef from 38.5 percent to 9 percent and eliminate a 21 percent tariff on soybean oil. Japan also would have to eliminate 80 percent of its pork tariffs in 11 years and make steep cuts in those that remain. The deal would do away with a 20 percent tariff on ground seasoned pork.

The agreement also was crafted, according to Vilsack, to ensure that the dairy industry can increase its sales to Canada and Japan sufficiently to make up for a modest increase in imports from New Zealand. The U.S. industry is protected by a range of import tariffs.

Canada will get to keep its supply management system for milk but is opening up 3.25 percent of its market to imports. The market share will vary by product, so some will be allowed in excess of 3.25 percent, according to the National Milk Producers Federation. The other issue, and this is crucial, we expect it will grow over time, NMPF spokesman Chris Galen said in an email. Japan, meanwhile, will eliminate a 40 percent tariff on cheese.

 Japan also will eliminate tariffs that are as high as 58 percent on wine, a move expected to benefit California vintners.

To win congressional support for the deal, the Farm Bureau will be promoting the agreement through its state and county affiliates - a message Stallman conveyed at Tuesday's meeting with Obama. It's going to be up to us to make the case that this agreement is important to each of  those individual districts in terms of the economic impact and the effect on agriculture to those districts, Stallman said. 

The Farm Bureau also will join with the same agriculture coalition that successfully lobbied Congress for approval of Trade Promotion Authority earlier this year.

Nick Giordano of the National Pork Producers Council said he expected most commodity groups to get behind agriculture's lobbying campaign, although most have been saying relatively little about the agreement until they see the language. The effort could get rolling as soon as this month, he said.

The seminal question is, are we better off with it or without (the TPP)? We feel really good about our outcome here, he said.

Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said the tobacco issue was an unforced error on the part of the administration that could lose critical Republican support without winning any Democratic votes. That particular thing baffles me, he said. If you look at the optics of it, it's going to lose them a bunch of tobacco-state votes.

Vilsack said the provision was narrowly constructed to ensure that it applies to tobacco and couldn't be extended to other products, such as biotechnology. It's difficult for the United States to suggest that we can have public health laws on the books and that we don't respect the ability of other countries to have similar public health regulations and laws on the books, Vilsack said.

TPP already is figuring into the presidential race. The frontrunner in the Republican race, billionaire Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton's main challenger in the Democratic race, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, both have sharply criticized the agreement.

The incompetence of our current administration is beyond comprehension. TPP is a terrible deal, Trump said on his Twitter feed.

But while Trump's attacks on illegal immigration have pushed his GOP challengers to the right on that issue, Reinsch doesn't think he will have the same impact on the TPP debate. Members of Congress will vote for TPP if it benefits their district, he said.

“If you represent an ag community and you've got a lot of pork producers or cattlemen in your district, what Trump or anybody on the Democratic side says isn't going to make a lot of difference,” Reinsch said. “Trump doesn't vote in Nebraska. Cattlemen vote in Nebraska.” 

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