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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue seeks to allay farmers’ trade concerns

UPDATED: Mon., July 2, 2018, 10:19 p.m.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, left, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers take questions from Eastern Washington agriculture leaders during a meeting at the Spokane Club on Monday, July 2, 2018, in Spokane. Perdue sought to assure American farmers that they would not bear the brunt of an international trade war, but he would not say specifically how the Agriculture Department might assist farmers hurt by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other trading partners. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, left, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers take questions from Eastern Washington agriculture leaders during a meeting at the Spokane Club on Monday, July 2, 2018, in Spokane. Perdue sought to assure American farmers that they would not bear the brunt of an international trade war, but he would not say specifically how the Agriculture Department might assist farmers hurt by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other trading partners. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sought to assure Eastern Washington agriculture leaders on Monday that American farmers will not bear the brunt of an international trade war.

But Perdue declined to say specifically how the Department of Agriculture might assist farmers hurt by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other trading partners.

“You say you have a playbook that you can’t reveal quite yet,” Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said to Perdue during the breakfast at the Spokane Club. “Mr. Secretary, what am I supposed to tell my farmers when they call in, in these uncertain times, asking me how the government is going to help them get through the trade war?”

Speaking alongside U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, during a daylong visit that included stops in Spokane, Pullman and Colfax, Perdue replied that his agency has many “tools in the tool bag” to keep farmers afloat as the Trump administration moves forward with tariffs on steel, aluminum and other products. Perdue did not say what those tools are.

Perdue defended the tariffs as a way to punish China for stealing American technology and intellectual property. In recent weeks, he has pointed repeatedly to a 2011 case in which Chinese nationals dug up genetically modified seeds from an Iowa cornfield in an attempt to steal and reverse-engineer them.

Yet it’s far from clear the tariffs will motivate China – the fourth-largest consumer of Washington wheat – to clean up its act. In response to Trump’s tariffs, the Chinese government is preparing to slap 25 percent tariffs on American wheat and more than 100 other products.

Perdue said his agency is working to identify financial hits that can be attributed to trade disruptions and not usual market volatility. He acknowledged that government loans and direct payments to farmers probably would not satisfy a domestic agriculture industry that has spent decades building foreign markets.

“We’d rather have trade than aid,” he said. “There’s not a farmer in your area that would not rather have a good crop at a fair price than a government check.”

About 90 percent of Washington wheat is exported, and the state’s second biggest customer is Japan. Glen Squires, the director of the Washington Grain Commission, told Perdue that growers in the state are especially worried about the impact of the president’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deal lifts trade barriers for member countries such as Canada, but not for non-members such as the United States. That puts American wheat producers at a disadvantage when selling to Japan.

“We recognize that markets take a lot of time and a lot of money to develop, but they can be lost very quickly because we’re in a competitive world,” Squires said. “There’s a lot of suppliers of wheat out there.”

Before Trump appointed him to lead the Agriculture Department, Perdue had a record of promoting trade policies that probably wouldn’t have appealed to the president, who eschews multilateral trade pacts and says he prefers to negotiate with one nation at a time.

As a two-term governor of Georgia, from 2003 to 2011, Perdue established the state’s international trade office in Beijing and proposed that Atlanta be the U.S. hub for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a 34-nation compact that would have eliminated trade barriers from the Bering Strait to the southern tip of Chile. He has long worked in the agribusiness sector, owning a number of grain- and feed-processing, farm transportation and crop export companies.

“He’s been one of our strongest advocates within the administration as to the importance of trade and markets,” McMorris Rodgers said of Perdue, who has also advocated for the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review on Monday, Perdue said the president had “gotten China’s attention with the tariffs,” though he added: “I might have done it a little different way.”

Perdue visited the Inland Northwest as the House and Senate prepare to reconcile two versions of the farm bill, a sweeping piece of legislation renewed every five years that governs an array of agriculture and food assistance programs. McMorris Rodgers said she and GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents Central Washington, are pushing to double the funding for the Agriculture Department’s Market Access Program, which promotes American crops through a network of international offices and organizations.

McMorris Rodgers said she is undecided on a proposal in the Senate, sponsored by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker and North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, that would curb the president’s ability to levy tariffs without approval from Congress.

“I’m looking at that legislation,” McMorris Rodgers said in the interview, without indicating if she would support it. “There’s a group of us in the House that are also looking at what are the appropriate tools that Congress has that we should be asserting right now.”

She noted that Congress gave the executive branch broad authority to impose tariffs with the creation of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in 1974. The idea, she said, was that it’s too unwieldy to involve hundreds of lawmakers in trade negotiations, and the task should instead be left to a smaller team.

But McMorris Rodgers’s Democratic challenger in the August primary, Lisa Brown, said Trump’s tariffs were ill-conceived and that Congress ought to take action on trade. She said she supports Corker and Heitkamp’s bill.

“The Asian markets for Washington have taken years to cultivate, and when they lose them, they lose them for a long time,” Brown said. “So there could be some fairly devastating consequences if we don’t get action really soon.”


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