Combest, a Texas Republican, caught some heat recently for the sheer amount of taxpayer money pouring into his district via federal farm subsidies. The New York Times reported the top 10 percent of subsidy recipients in one county represented by Combest received an average $396,000 a year from 1996 to 1999. That's more than double the national average.
That sort of largesse causes more than political heat for sitting lawmakers. It affects everything from planting decisions to trade negotiations. Indeed, the White House argues that excessive farm subsidies, at home and abroad, are but one of the sticking points in trying to negotiate agreements that liberalize global farm trade.
The Bush administration put farm trade at the top of its global trade agenda this week, calling for a new round of negotiations within the World Trade Organization ... and for Congress to grant the president so-called "fast track" trade authority.
The special trade authority, which expired in 1994, would give the administration the ability to negotiate trade deals that either are approved or rejected by Congress without amendment. The White House claims the lack of fast track authority not only is stifling efforts to launch a new round of WTO talks that would focus on farm subsidies and tariffs ... but also is costing the U.S. trade opportunities in its own backyard.
Bush: "We've got countries in our own hemisphere saying. 'Will you trade with us.' And I say, 'You bet.' It's a free-trading administration, so long as everything is level and fair. And they say, 'But how can we know you can trade with us when we negotiate a deal and you don't have the authority to strike it without having to submit the bill to every single amendment there could be up on the Hill.?' You see, they recognize that other presidents used to have trade promotion authority.. And now I don't."
Republicans oppose fast track fearing it would lead to more restrictions on trade, not fewer. Democrats say the authority allows the White House to cut deals while ignoring labor and environmental concerns.
But Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said without fast track authority, the U.S. could for years lose any chance of correcting inequities in farm trade under the current WTO, especially with Europe.
SLUG: EU HQ
Among the grievances the administration has with Europe are the size of its tariffs on some U.S. products and the scope of its own farm subsidy programs.
But independent of U.S. complaints, the Europeans moved this week to make changes. European Union ministers adopted a pilot plan to pay small-scale farmers a flat-rate sum regardless of whether they produce anything. Under the program, which runs until 2005, all farmers receiving less than 12-hundred-50 Euros a year in government aid can abandon growing crops in return for keeping their land in good agricultural condition. The plan would affect a quarter of all farmers in the European Union.
The flat retainer the Europeans will pay to their small-scale farmers is the brainchild of E.U. Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler, who called it a blueprint for all future farm subsidy programs. Fischler long has asserted that European farm policy must move away from a system that artificially supports prices ... and toward a plan that rewards farmers for other things, like land stewardship. By removing the link with production for a large number of farmers, Fischler thinks E.U. policy will be more credible at future world trade talks.
The success of the European plan no doubt will be closely watched in Washington, where the move toward subsidy programs based more on conservation efforts already is under way.