Roberts, Perdue present contrasting trade views at WITA event
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue received awards from the Washington International Trade Association at its annual dinner Wednesday evening, but there were differences in their acceptance speeches.
Roberts, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee as well as chairing the Agriculture Committee, gave an enthusiastic endorsement of free trade, agreements the United States has signed, and the multilateral trading system, while indirectly criticizing President Donald Trump’s positions and actions on trade.
Of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Roberts said, “I was there at the beginning and I will be there at the new beginning.”
He also noted that U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico and Canada have increased massively under NAFTA.
“We should be aggressively seeking new agreements and trading opportunities around the world. And, then work to meet that demand,” Roberts said. “The United States should be leading the charge. We are not, and if we do not change course there is a danger we will be left behind.”
“I have voiced my concern time and time again that tariffs placed on our trading partners pose a significant threat to the international markets upon which our economy relies,” Roberts said.
“We have seen those threats realized over the past several weeks — notably exports of soybeans and meat in China. And, the problem is only growing as other trading partners follow suit.
“Markets that the United States has spent decades building and supplying are now at a turning point. Our role as a reliable supplier is at risk.
“Going back to the days of President Carter’s grain embargo, we learned that trade, more especially agricultural trade, should not be used as a weapon. Rather it is a tool — a tool for peace, for national security through open markets, and for economic growth.”
Adapting his frequent statement that farmers are “his posse” to the lobbyists, Roberts said, “Folks, we’ve got to saddle up and ride and get this situation taken care of before more damage occurs.”
Roberts also noted that his staff asks him to follow the message and not go off script.
When Perdue took the stage, he noted that he has a boss who does that, but mostly Perdue defended the administration’s actions.
“We are in unusual circumstances regarding trade,” Perdue said. “We’ve got to acknowledge (that) trade-wise we’ve got some people who haven’t been playing by the rules.”
“Tariffs are not the ultimate answer, but they are a tool to get people’s attention so we can get the players on both teams playing by the same rules.”
Perdue told the assembled trade lobbyists that he did not expect them to applaud his every word, and acknowledged that the tariffs and the retaliatory tariffs in reaction to them are becoming increasingly unpopular in rural America.
Perdue said that Trump had asked him how things were going in farm country and that he replied, “Mr. President, I can’t lie to you. It’s a little bit like a weight-loss program. It’s painful when you’re going through, but we think there’s going to be better days ahead.”
WITA also presented a Congressional Leadership Award to Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who noted the importance of the Port of Baltimore and that agriculture is Maryland’s No. 1 industry, even though most people don’t realize that.
Cardin was introduced by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who talked about her own commitment to trade and the Export-Import Bank.
WITA’s Lighthouse Award, which is presented to people who are usually not recognized, went to Laura Baughman, president of The Trade Partnership and Trade Partnership Worldwide, LLC, which produces many of the statistics used in arguments for free trade.