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McMorris Rodgers, Rep. Mike Conaway meet with farmers, call for action on trade

Zach Maier,  a fifth generation dryland wheat farmer on his family land near Ritzville in Eastern Washington, keeps watch on the fertilizing equipment as he moves across the land in June 2013. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Zach Maier, a fifth generation dryland wheat farmer on his family land near Ritzville in Eastern Washington, keeps watch on the fertilizing equipment as he moves across the land in June 2013. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Just hours after votes were counted in her closest election to date, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers hosted a breakfast Wednesday featuring a powerful Republican from Texas and a score of farm officials worried about the uncertainty rocking Washington agriculture.

But Tuesday’s primary results in the race with Democratic challenger Lisa Brown never came up amid conversations about the trade war kicked off earlier this year by President Donald Trump’s decision to levy tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

“Well yes, I’m encouraged by the support and anxious to see more numbers,” McMorris Rodgers said when asked about the election after the breakfast. Vote totals counted later Wednesday pushed McMorris’ lead over Brown to 1,289 votes.

Otherwise, McMorris Rodgers made U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, available for questions from farm officials who represent growers facing a wave of uncertainty. As chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Conaway explained his efforts to get the next Farm Bill through Congress.

“My purpose in inviting the chairman to come to Eastern Washington … is to allow farmers to talk directly to these national leaders,” she said. “I’ve been impressing on the administration, as it relates to trade, to lead with farmers in mind.”

Again, however, the news of the day seemed ready to interject itself into the day’s program. Just hours after his breakfast meeting, news broke that Conaway had purchased stock from the same Australian pharmaceutical company that is the focus of insider-trading charges filed this week against U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY.

Conaway had already left for a tour in Pullman. But his spokeswoman, Emily Hytha, issued this statement to the Dallas Morning News: “Mr. Conaway initially invested in Innate Immunotherapeutics because it was a promising breakthrough to treat Multiple Sclerosis [MS], which impacts a close friend of his. Strict ethics laws and reporting requirements regulate investments made by members of Congress, which Mr. Conaway follows without exception.”

‘Get this trade stuff done’

As for his message to Washington farmers, Conaway told them they have the right president fighting for them.

“I met last week with the president on that trade issue,” he said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. “My sense was that he would prefer a bilateral deal with Mexico and a bilateral deal with Canada. No details of course, but that’s just the sense was that he was saying he was getting close on both countries. So that may be coming.”

Conaway and McMorris Rodgers both said they hope something gets done soon.

“Our voices have been, ‘Mr. President get this trade stuff done,’ ” Conaway said. “It’s unsettling the markets in a big way, none more unsettled than the ag markets.”

McMorris Rodgers said she has never supported Trump’s decision to place tariffs on steel and aluminum, which prompted China to place retaliatory tariffs on many crops exported from Washington.

“Tariffs are taxes and these across-the-board tariffs are leading to trade wars that I fear are negatively impacting agriculture as well American producers and manufacturers,” she said. “We need to get these bilateral trade agreements.”

Asked how Trump officials responded, McMorris Rodgers said: “They keep saying it’s coming.”

Conaway said one way to restore some certainty for farmers is to get the Farm Bill passed. But he also supported Trump’s attempt to equal the playing field on trade with China.

“China cheats and this president is going after them,” Conaway said. “They spend $100 billion a year on subsidies for wheat, corn and rice to their farmers. That’s seven times what we spend with everything we do across agriculture.”

He compared Trump’s efforts to a student standing up to a bully on the school yard.

“Sometimes the bully punches back. That’s what’s happening,” Conaway said. “It’s unsettling a lot of folks who are targeted by the retaliation. I get that. But, it’s the right fight to have.”

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