Conaway: Trump wants farm bill done on time
SAN ANTONIO — In a wide-ranging speech and a news conference in San Antonio on March 3, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said that President Donald Trump wants “a strong farm bill” done on time.
Conaway did not provide a citation for those Trump remarks in his speech to the Commodity Classic, but said he thinks “we have a good advocate in the White House,” even though Trump did not mention agriculture or rural America in his March 2 speech to a joint session of Congress.
Conaway predicted that Sonny Perdue, Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, would be confirmed. Conaway dismissed concerns that White House slowness in sending Perdue’s confirmation documents to the Senate Agriculture Committee may mean there are some problems with the nomination, but he acknowledged that Perdue “has extensive business interests, and those require disclosure.”
Conaway signaled that he does not want the Trump administration to submit a farm bill proposal, as Mike Johanns, the Agriculture secretary in the George W. Bush administration, did — only to find it dead on arrival.
“We all have our equities, and we are all jealous of our equities, and one of the equities of the legislative branch is to write the law,” Conaway said.
Conaway repeated his frequent statements that he wants to get the farm bill done before the 2014 bill expires on Sept. 30, 2018. People who want the drama of extensions “need to go to a different theater,” he said.
Conaway said he would push to move forward with the bill even if House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wants to hold it up so that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can be included in his proposed welfare reform bill.
Conaway also said that he wants both the farm program and SNAP reauthorized on time, whether that has to be in a single bill or separate bills, but added that the only people who want to separate the two want to use that separation as a mechanism “to kill the farm program.”
Seeming to make the same point that House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has made in the past, Conaway said Congress will not kill the SNAP program, previously known as food stamps, but it might kill the farm program. Peterson has noted that SNAP provides food to too many people for it to be ended, while the farm bill provides direct benefits to a much smaller group of people.
FIXING THE CLIFF
One of his goals in welfare reform, Conaway said, is to fix “the cliff” under which low-income people who qualify for SNAP may lose their benefits if they find a job or get a raise that puts them just above the qualification level. That situation, he said, discourages them from working.
Conaway did not comment on Ryan’s proposal to turn SNAP into a block grant to the states. He said his approach to the farm bill will be to focus on its impact on the lowest-income people in the country.
The richest 20 percent of Americans spend more on food than the bottom 20 percent earn, he said. And while U.S. agriculture provides the safest, most affordable food supply in the developed world, the lowest-income people spend 34 percent of their budget on food, he added.
Conaway also said his priority in the farm bill is to get the cotton STAX program “jettisoned” and get cotton back into Title I of the farm bill. He said he would be open to meeting with Perdue to discuss whether USDA might declare cottonseed an oilseed — a decision that the Obama administration said was not possible under current law. But Conaway said he would not discuss cottonseed with Perdue before he is confirmed.
Conaway also said that cotton growers “got bailed out” last year by “monster yields” and a moderated price, but they cannot count on those circumstances occurring every year.
Conaway said Peterson’s priorities are dairy and increasing acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, under which farmers get paid to idle land. Conaway said that if CRP acreage is increased, other programs will probably have to be cut.
Conaway said he is aware that Midwesterners are anxious that he and Perdue are both Southerners, and he promised to balance regional farm bill interests “very gently.”
“I am going to try to be as even-handed and non-parochial as I can to get this done,” he said.
In other comments, Conaway said:
He has told White House officials that the Trans Pacific Partnership set standards against which most agriculture groups will judge bilateral agreements that Trump proposes.
White House officials told him that they have been focused on the impact of imports and have only recently recognized the importance of exports.
Attendees should not take a position on tax reform until they see the whole package.
He has not taken a position on the proposed border adjustment tax that some analysts fear will cause other countries to engage in trade retaliation.
Eliminating the estate tax is a high priority, but whether the tax system could retain the stepped-up basis under which farmland is valued at the time of death and inheritance depends on how much it would cost the tax system. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said the tax system is like a dial, and with each tax break people want general rates to go up.
The Renewable Fuel Standard should not be ended because people have made investments based on its existence, but the volumetric requirements should be capped and any growth beyond that should be in the “free market.”
Conaway ended his speech with his frequent comments that the U.S. needs to recover its morality. Conaway questioned whether God could bless the U.S. when there have been millions of abortions in the last 40 years and Hollywood is producing films he finds objectionable.
Conaway noted that he and his wife were in Washington when the Women’s March took place the day after Trump’s inauguration. Conaway said there was a “taint” to that march due to the references to women’s body parts “in the crass, most common way possible.” He did not mention that the women were responding to Trump’s use of the same references.