WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2016 – Donald Trump’s election should help ensure that farm groups can fight off challenges to agricultural programs when Congress starts work on the next farm bill in 2017, according to a veteran of multiple farm bill battles.
Trump won the presidency “on a wave of farmer, rural America support,” and farmers also will have allies running the House and Senate Agriculture committees, said Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, speaking at a farm bill forum Wednesday sponsored by the Farm Foundation.
“Farmers have a lot of vote-getting ability here with the key people,” said Conner, who was a member of Trump’s agricultural advisory council.
Conner, who served as deputy agriculture secretary and acting agriculture secretary during George W. Bush’s second term, has been mentioned as a possible agriculture secretary under Trump. He declined to comment after the forum on whether he was under consideration.
During the forum, two prominent critics of farm programs pressed for some major changes to farm policy. Daren Bakst, a farm policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, called for splitting nutrition programs from the farm bill and ending revenue insurance. “Farmers and ranchers shouldn't be insulated from market forces, such as low prices,” said Bakst.
Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, argued that voluntary conservation programs have failed to stem water pollution problems and proposed to tighten conservation compliance requirements. He also said that conservation assistance programs should be refocused to ensure that subsidized practices and equipment address the most pressing pollution issues. “Our drinking water remains polluted. Lake Erie still turns green every summer. There’s still a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut,” Faber said.
But Conner, who played a key role in directing the Bush administration’s farm policy during development of the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, expressed confidence that Trump and Republicans in Congress would protect farm programs from coming attacks.
“Anybody who thinks it is not going to be a user-friendly, farmer-friendly bill better start re-evaluating. … At the end of this day this is going to be a very pro-farmer bill. Period,” Conner said.
Conner said that he believed that farmers’ anger about regulations, including the “heavy hand of EPA,” was a significant factor in Trump’s strong rural vote, along with economic concerns. “Given the results of the last election ... "new regulations are not going to happen,” he said, a clear reference to EWG's proposal to raise conservation standards.
He also suggested that Congress could beef up the farm bill’s rural development provisions in response to Trump’s strong rural support. “Trump and (Vice President-elect Mike) Pence are well aware of where their bread is buttered and they want to play a big role in this area.”
Faber, meanwhile, playfully and confidently predicted that Heritage would lose its effort to split the bill. “It’s more likely that I will be the next secretary of agriculture than we will split the farm bill,” he said.
Heritage successfully pressed the House to split its farm bill in 2013, which led to separate votes on farm and nutrition measures, but the legislation was ultimately put back together during negotiations with the Senate.
Critics have long seen dividing the farm bill coalition, which includes agricultural groups as well as nutrition advocates, as essential to cutting spending. Bakst insisted that the goal was to allow Congress to “thoughtfully consider” improvements to both farm and nutrition programs.
However, Bakst made clear that farm groups will have an ally in Heritage when it comes to rolling back President Obama’s regulatory agenda. Heritage supports killing the “waters of the United States” rule, and Bakst said Congress should go further and reopen the Clean Water Act to define the term “navigable waters,” which fall under the jurisdiction of the law.
Congress has so far been unable to agree on clarifications to the law, leading to the Obama administration’s decision to write the WOTUS rule.
Bakst also argued that the Clean Water Act’s agricultural exemption should be expanded, noting in part that it only applies to ongoing farming operations since 1977. “In theory, agriculture might be exempted but the way it’s interpreted they’re not,” Bakst said.
Faber argued that consumers are demanding changes in agricultural policy because of their increased interest in how food is produced. To make his point, he needled Conner about a Trump campaign promise to protect farmers from critics “who have never grown or produced anything beyond a backyard tomato plant.” Faber presented Conner with some homegrown tomatoes in an EWG bag.
Conner acknowledged that many in in the agricultural sector were nervous about Trump’s trade policy. Trump has pledged to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to launch trade actions against China. His trade advisory team at the U.S. Trade Representative's office includes experts on trade enforcement as well as China
Trump “likes what he sees in agricultural trade. He does believe in the manufacturing sector that we can do better,” Conner said.