Farm Groups Nod, Shake Heads at Bush Fast Track Request
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Capitol Hill maneuver sought by President Bush to help nail down U.S. agricultural trade negotiations is supported by several powerful farm and commodity groups. But there are some influential doubters, too.
The talks are under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the so-called Uruguay Round that began in that country five years ago.
Although the negotiations were scheduled to conclude last December, they sputtered unsuccessfully to a halt and since have been restarted in attempts to reach compromises for liberalizing global agricultural trade.
Bush, meanwhile, has asked Congress for special authority to continue negotiations on the GATT trade proposals and to pursue a North American Free Trade Agreement involving the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The president’s current ″fast track″ authority will expire June 1. He has asked for two more years.
Under such authority, Congress could not amend the GATT or free-trade agreements and would be held to a yes-or-no vote on them without proposing amendments.
Fast-track authority is supported by some large business and farm groups, while opposition has developed among public interest, consumer and some farm organizations.
At his confirmation hearing last week to be secretary of agriculture, Rep. Edward Madigan of Illinois, an 18-year House veteran, noted briefly that farm support has included wheat, corn and soybean grower organizations, along with the American Farm Bureau Federation and others.
The choke point in the GATT talks has been opposition from the 12-nation European Community to proposals for modifying certain internal farm support programs, along with its system of export subsidies.
Recent developments indicate some encouragement that the impasse can be resolved. The United States wants to be prepared to act on any new, acceptable agreement.
Madigan told the Senate Agriculture Committee that the aim is to get the EC and other holdouts ″to agree to a reduction in what is categorized as market- distorting subsidies″ paid to European farmers.
That would necessitate the EC transferring its internal price support system ″to subsidies for farmers that are not production encouraging,″ he said.
Madigan said the support for a fast-track extension from some farm groups indicates they hope any GATT agreement ″will have the benefits for American agriculture that would be possible under a fair agreement.″
And that was much on the mind of Harry Bell of the American Farm Bureau Federation when he told a House Agriculture Committee panel that farmers have much to gain from a successful GATT agreement and ″a great deal to lose″ if the talks fail.
But Bell warned, ″We will not accept any result in which U.S. farmers are asked to give up more than they receive from other countries.″
As the Farm Bureau has said before, Bell noted that ″no agreement is preferable to a bad agreement.″
Madigan told his Senate questioners that yes, he would walk away from a GATT deal that was costly to American farmers.
The National Farmers Union wants Congress to reject outright the Bush administration’s request for a two-year extension of fast track rules.
″Trade agreements should be subject to full, unrestricted debate and modification by Congress,″ the NFU said. ″Any restrictions on that debate and action represent an abrogation of the responsibilities and duties of Congress.″
The National Milk Producers Federation also opposes fast-track rules, contending that dairy farmers’ ″prices and incomes will be negatively affected by the type of trade agreement that is likely to result″ from the GATT talks.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate committee, told the Madigan hearing he has misgivings about fast-track GATT rules.
Not all commodities would benefit from trade liberalization, at least in the short run, he said. Dairy products, peanuts, sugar and cotton could be hurt by a GATT agreement.
″I cannot support fast track while the administration is unwilling to commit to providing income protection to American farmers hurt by GATT,″ Leahy said.
End Adv Sunday, March 10