Through tariff turmoil, agriculture sticks with the GOP
This year hasn’t been a good one for U.S. farmers.
Though most sectors of the U.S. economy are strong, real net farm income is projected to drop to a nine-year low. Harvest season has been filled with droughts and storms. Workforce shortages and devastating trade barriers aren’t going away.
Even as farmers struggle under a GOP President and Congress, the agriculture industry hasn’t broken from its trend of favoring Republicans with its campaign contributions.
GOP donor support is high in part because major farming operations generally contribute to incumbent politicians in the agriculturally-rich districts they are located in, which are represented mostly by Republicans.
For example, the biggest recipient of dairy industry giving is Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) with $142,747 in contributions from dairy industry affiliates, employees and PACs. Valadao represents a dairy farmer-rich area and owned his own family farm for years.
With negotiations over the new Farm Bill currently ongoing, leaders of the chambers’ respective agriculture committees are also well-supported. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) has received a candidate-high $808,728 from the agribusiness sector this cycle.
The most popular Democratic representative this cycle — netting $536,325 — is Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who represents the corn and soybean-dominated southern Minnesota and is the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee.
Two crucial blanket issues for farmers — trade and immigration — have not been helped by the GOP-led government. At the same time, typical Republican policies such as low taxes and fewer environmental regulations align with most farmers’ interests.
The American Farm Bureau Federation is a non-partisan organization, but as the largest group representing U.S. farmers, its policy opinions hold a lot of weight in Washington. The group has decried some Trump Administration policies — his trade war with China in particular — but also supported Trump’s tax cuts and his recent proposal to allow expanded E15 sales.
Paul Schlegel, managing director of public policy at the bureau, noted that immigration is an important issue to farmers, as farming operations simply cannot find enough workers.
“Labor is a serious challenge … the current guest worker program is not open to certain year-round operations such as dairy and mushroom farmers,” Schlegel said. “We want a program that says any farmer with any commodity, during any season and any time of year can get workers and that they’re legal. We need to get that and we need a transition period to stabilize the workers we do have.”
The Bureau endorsed a bipartisan bill (H.R. 6417) led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), which would have allowed more guest workers and permit them to work all year, but it hasn’t been given a standalone vote by leadership.
“It’s not perfect but it offers a bit of hope of what we’re looking for,” Schlegel said.
The bureau has warned against the detrimental effects of mandating E-Verify — a popular idea among GOP members of Congress and a measure included in Goodlatte’s bill — saying it would cause production to drop by a massive $60 billion.
But if immigration is a challenging subject for farming leaders, the ongoing trade war is downright frustrating. Tariffs were not eliminated before the start of the harvest season, and although the GOP-led Congress has passed resolutions rebuking Trump’s tariffs, it has not taken action to remove them.
Agriculture groups lauded the administration’s United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — meant to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — but they always make sure to note that the administration is still endangering farmers with their biggest market: China.
“With USMCA, KORUS, and other agreements in sight, we are hopeful that a negotiated solution to the China tariffs could be in sight,” American Soybean Association President and Illinois farmer John Heisdorffer said in an October release.
Though the U.S. government paid out $4.7 billion to farmers in late August — most of which went to the hardest-hit soybean farmers — farm groups have asked for more to offset losses. The National Milk Producers Federation asked for another $1 billion after dairy farmers were given $127 million, saying milk producers stood to lose $1.5 billion from tariffs in the second half of 2018.
With the industry struggling hard and the GOP not responding to ‘devastating’ tariffs, there has been a slight shift in contributions from the agribusiness sector from the third quarter on.
The percentage of donations from crop processors to Democrats shifted from 31 percent in the first 18 months of the cycle to 36 percent in the last three-and-a-half months. Livestock changed from 29 percent to 36 percent over the same period. Dairy shifted from 24 percent to 36 percent.
Still, free-trade seeking farmers, in general, don’t appear to see Democrats — who like Republicans are not unified on the subject of Trump’s tariffs — as the solution to their problems.
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