Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says he strongly opposes any effort to extend the current farm bill beyond 2007, saying it might send a signal to the WTO that “we are waiting for them to write our farm bill.”
Keeping the farm bill in place for another year or two — a move that appears to appeal to many row crop farmers, particularly in the South — would also be a waste of an opportunity to provide new direction to American agriculture, the secretary said.
“I have said many, many times that the 2002 farm bill was the right policy for its time, but times have changed, which brings me to the question some have raised about extending the farm bill,” he said. “I firmly submit to you that such an extension might be the wrong course for rural America.”
His remarks came during the opening session of USDA's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va. A record 1,600 persons registered for the conference.
Johanns said his comments should not be interpreted as any sign of declining enthusiasm on his part for completing the current round of WTO negotiations, which began in Doha, Qatar in 2001.
“It's quite the opposite,” he noted. “I want to be very clear about my commitment to bringing the Doha Development Round to a successful conclusion. It's right for the world, it's right for the United States and it's right for American agriculture and for rural America.”
At a press conference following his speech, Johanns said he believes USDA is “well-positioned” to discuss the future of farm policy after conducting 52 farm bill listening forums in 2005. Johanns personally moderated 20 of the sessions.
House Ag Committee hearings
He noted that the House Agriculture Committee has now held two field hearings and that Sen. Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, has said it will hold hearings after the first of the year.
“So I feel very strong that any idea that we simply re-package the farm bill and extend it for a year or two works against all the good effort that is out there and the ideas that have been brought forth,” said Johanns.
A one-year extension of the current law also raises questions about how determined the United States is to bring the Doha Development Round to a conclusion, he said. “I feel very strongly we should stay the course and concentrate on good farm policy.”
Johanns made his first expression of opposition to a one-year extension in response to a question posed by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., at a House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee hearing Feb. 15, the day before the Outlook Forum.
Emerson said many of her farmer constituents favor such an extension because they want to make sure the U.S. government “doesn't unilaterally disarm” its farm programs before the Doha Round is completed.
She said there's a suspicion in the farm community that some government officials think the priorities of the European Union and the WTO process “are more important than they are.”
At the press conference at the Outlook Forum, a reporter asked Johanns if he thought Congress would have to adjust the farm bill if a new law is passed before the Doha agreement is completed?
“I believe very strongly that we can do good farm policy,” said Johanns. “We know what trade is about, and we know how important trade is. And we're going to know about the prospects for the Doha Round here pretty quickly. If this doesn't all fall together by spring the Doha Round is going to be in jeopardy.”
Working against deadline
Political analysts says Johanns and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who also spoke at the Outlook Forum, are working against a deadline of July 2007 for completing the trade pact.
That's the expiration date for the Trade Promotion Authority that allows the president to submit trade agreements to Congress for an up and down vote with no opportunity for amendments. Analysts say the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which passed the House and Senate by only a handful of votes, served notice of how difficult it will be to renew the TPA.
In their meeting in Hong Kong last December, WTO trade ministers set an April 30 deadline for completing an agreement on modalities for reforming farm subsidies and a July 1 deadline for reducing tariff barriers. They said they would attempt to reach a final Doha Round agreement by the end of 2006.
But Andrew Stoler, a former WTO negotiator in the U.S. Trade Representative's office and a speaker at a Outlook Forum session on global trade, said a recent survey conducted by Australia's Institute for International Business, Economics and Law found that less than 2 percent of WTO members expect to meet that timetable.