Trade also was on the minds of envoys in Qatar, where World Trade Organization members met this week. The fanfare surrounding the acceptance of China and Taiwan into the WTO soon gave way to the business at hand. With so little to show after the Battle in Seattle two years ago, negotiators were desperate to produce an agreement. As usual, trade subsidies, especially in agriculture, were a contentious issue.
But, in the end, the trade emissaries came to an agreement and went home ... ready to start a new round of talks.<p
Perhaps the most noteworthy concession of the deal struck in Qatar (KAH-tar) is the willingness of European Union countries to at least reduce their farm subsidies. The E-U accounts for more than 80 percent of all farm subsidies paid worldwide.
Also included in the agenda for a new round of talks are rules for protecting investments in WTO member countries, evenhanded administering of antitrust laws, and the reduction of red tape at customs offices.
While this will be the first revamping of World Trade Organization rules since the Uruguay round ended in 1994, any trade benefits are likely years away. That previous round lasted seven years.
(slug: farm subsidies)
Back in the nation's capitol the agenda includes farm payments as well, namely how much to give out.
Under an economic stimulus plan that cleared the senate finance committee, farmers would receive one-point-seven billion dollars in disaster relief. The money would be given to cover weather related losses as well as losses in crop quality caused by disease. And the package includes assistance for livestock producers.
The disaster relief is in addition to the billions of dollars congress poured into the federal crop insurance program last year. The Clinton administration advocated the change as a way to lower crop insurance premiums, cover more farmers, and eliminate the need for disaster assistance.
While the Finance Committee worked on an economic stimulus plan, Democrats on the Agriculture Committee sent an overhaul of U.S. farm and nutrition policy to the Senate floor. The legislation emerged from committee over the objections of Republicans, who said it would encourage continued price-depressing overproduction.
To win approval from dissident members of his own party, committee chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa made a series of concessions. Among them, dropping efforts to cut subsidy payments to big grain and cotton farmers. Harkin also trimmed his conservation proposals and added a subsidy program for dairy farmers.
The bill's final form is far from complete. Indeed, Republicans already are talking about submitting an alternative plan.