House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Tex.) was a guest on Thursday’s AgriTalk radio program; the conversation with Mike Adams focused on the Farm Bill and trade.
This is an unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of their discussion.
Mr. Adams: Welcome back to AgriTalk. Yesterday, here in Washington, D.C., had a chance to talk a number of issues with the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Congressman Mike Conaway from Texas.
Let’s get right into it. Questions about the farm bill. Some have even questioned would the farm bill get reopened. Any chance of that happening?
Rep. Conaway: Well, you can never say any chance, but over my dead body. [Laughter.] No, we’re not interested in opening it. You know, the ink’s hardly dry. You producers are going through the agony of all those choices that we bragged about this time last year that we’re going to give you, that you could tailor the safety net for exactly your own farming operation, it wasn’t going to be one-size-fits all—yep, yep, yep.
And now that you got it, it’s like, oh my goodness, this is hard. But anyway, so…you’re just now in that first round of doing that, and it’s not even fully implemented yet, so we’ll fight off any attempt to do that, including attempts during the ag approps process to do anything, to do damage to our process.
You know, the whole appropriations process, it’s a pretty arrogant group that— including myself who used to come down there and do that—you come [tricky] trotting onto the floor, you’ve got a great amendment to strip something out, and it’s very disrespectful to the authorizing committees who’ve spent months or whatever trying to learn and get the policies just right, and then to come in and try to strip something out.
So we’re going to fight off all of those crop insurance issues and other things that might come up here in the ag approps process, but we won’t open the farm bill, certainly not…I’m not going to do anything that would do that, so the answer is—the short answer is no. But again, you never say never. Something might happen, but it’ll be over my dead body.
Mr. Adams: All right. Let’s go to trade. A lot of talk about Trade Promotion Authority. Where does that stand? What are the chances that’s going to get passed in Congress?
Rep. Conaway: Well, if we’re going to do a trade deal on TPP or T-TIP, either one of those, we have to have TPA. And there’s a lot of misinformation. We don’t typically be partisan in this room, but there are a lot of folks on our side of the aisle that are not interested in doing anything to help President Obama, and it’s misguided as to what Trade Promotion Authority does or doesn’t do. As you sit and talk to them and help them understand that right now the President has unfettered negotiating authority, just like he is with Iran, and Trade Promotion Authority brings him into a set playing field to say how he’s going to negotiate, how he’s going to work with Congress over that, and at the end of the day, we still get the up or down vote on the deal. So it’s vital that we get it done.
It actually hems up the President and narrows down what he could or couldn’t do, and it goes the direction folks want. We’ve just got a bad name for it. So maybe we need to name it, I don’t know, something different that—better be careful there—something different that just is not as counterintuitive to what you think they’re doing.
I sat the day before yesterday with a member who’s been here a long time, and I asked him, I said, so kind of where are you on TPA? He said oh no, I’m not going to give this President any whatever. I said, well, take a deep breath. So I walked him through the mechanics of it and he goes, oh, well I’m for that. So it’s a matter of educating. We’ve got to educate not only members, but educate their supporters and their constituents. Got a lot of folks back home who feel the same way that their member does, and so it’s going to take an educational process.
I met with the Canadians today. They’re not going to sign fully onto TPP unless we have Trade Promotion Authority. Think about the mechanics. What we’re asking them to do without TPA is to sign a deal, negotiate a deal with all these other countries, get the best deal they can, and then send it to Congress, where 535 individuals can amend the deal, can change it. Well, none of you would put yourself in that circumstance, so Canada and Japan, they’re going to wait. I mean, they’re not going to come on board until we get TPA done, and they know that once they make a deal with Froman, then he can bring that deal to Congress for an up or down vote, and that makes the most sense.
So in the mean time we’re losing trade opportunities. Bilateral deals are being done that undermine our negotiating positions with respect to the current TPP negotiations, so time is of the essence. I know in my conversations with Paul Ryan, he’s ready to go. There’s some conversations with the leadership of the Senate as to how mechanically they want to do. They’re still trying to decide does the House go first, they go first. All those kind of questions are being bandied around. But time is of the essence, because we need to get this done.
Mr. Adams: Do you get the sense there are the votes to pass TPA or not?
Rep. Conaway: Well, we’re going through the whip exercise right now. There’s a group of us that already know how we want to vote, and we’re working with our other members across. Pete Sessions is kind of heading that up, and I’ve not talked to Pete about the numbers. But the folks I’ve talked to, I’ve got great responses, and I think we’ll get there.
Mr. Adams: From what you’ve seen and heard of the TPP deal, are you satisfied that we’re being protected, especially agriculture? I know there are concerns about what is Japan willing or not willing to do. Are you happy with what you’re hearing so far?
Rep. Conaway: Well, I’m happy with what I’m hearing from you producers and your groups. Michael Froman, the trade rep, I think is doing a good job. He’s listening to you. You’re engaged with him. And so the mechanics of how that’s coming together, I don’t know any of the details of the actual trade deal itself that’s being talked about, but I do know that he’s working with the trade associations and the various producer groups and others as he negotiates the ag pieces of what’s going on, so I’ve got confidence in the process.
I’ve met multiple times with Michael Froman. In fact the first meeting that I had for the full committee was a briefing with Michael Froman on trade for all of our members, because it’s a big deal and many of our members have not voted on any trade deals yet, and I wanted them to have the facts before they’re confronted with folks who don’t know the facts, but are really sold out on their position, and try to sway them one way or the other. So actually, our first group gathering as the Ag Committee under my leadership was with Michael Froman on this deal.
So again, don’t know the specifics about what’s being traded where and when, but I am pleased with what I’m hearing, both from him saying I’m listening to those guys when I have a particular section that I’m trying to negotiate, and I’m talking to them [as going], and then on the back side, when I talk to the producer groups, they’re saying the same thing—yep, we’re talking to Froman, we’re involved. And that’s to your credit, because previous trade deals, you could argue that ag got thrown under the bus a little bit.
And almost from the start, when I began hearing from all of you is that that’s not going to happen again, we’re going to be engaged in the process, we’re going to be at the table, and we’re going to get our interests represented much better than we’ve done in the past. So that’s a real credit to collectively everybody who’s been involved in that process and making that happen over the last, you know, two or three years, whenever this TPP’s been coming together. You’ve done a better job of inserting yourself into the conversation.
Mr. Adams: On the topic of trade, are you supportive of opening up trade with Cuba?
Rep. Conaway: Not at this time. And I think we need the Castro boys to meet their maker and, you know, all the other…there’s good arguments for why you do that. I’m… But all those other countries that we’ve fought and had disagreements with, and then reestablished relationships with, we’ve done it with a new regime, at least some different face. It is inevitable that we will open up and reestablish full out diplomatic relations with Cuba.
I think where we are right now, we have some leverage. We should use that leverage to try to push on certain human rights issues and democracy issues within Cuba that’s not going to happen on its own. And we’re squandering that leverage, in my view, to get some things done that would make the lives of everyday Cubans better. What we will do in the interim is make the lives of the thugs and the folks who run that country, their lives will be improved, their cash flows will be better, etc., etc. This argument that if we just had Americans coming down there as tourists, that things would be so much better, that democracy would break out and we’d have elections and all this kind of stuff, Canadians and Europeans have been going to Cuba for a long, long time, and that hasn’t had one whit of a difference.
The last time I was there, I went to Cuba on a group with nine other members, and it was one of those wonderful experiences where we’d go to the head of the Communist Party to meet with him, and either Greg Meeks or one of the others would say, you know, so-and-so, there are nine of us on this trip who are in favor of full out open trade with Cuba, and one of them is not, and it’s Conaway. And so I got thrown under the bus at every one of those meetings.
But at the end of the deal we had a big press conference, and I was last to speak, and I said, you know, a regime that is afraid to let its people see the Major League box scores, baseball box scores each day, they restrict the amount of information that comes in, including box scores, if you’re so terrified of letting your people know that the box scores, that those Cubans who have defected that are playing good baseball, and that you might find that the folks back home might find that out, that’s a regime that I’m not sure we’re ready to deal with.
So we’ve got some leverage, it’s inevitable. I am in favor of lifting any kind of trade restrictions with respect to agricultural products. If you want to make a deal with Cuba, and you want to trust that you’ll get paid, that’s your business. I disagreed with President Bush on requiring the cash to be in your pocket before the goods could leave U.S. ports. That’s a business deal that the ag folks should be making, and so that part of it I’m good with. But overall, we need to use what little leverage we have left to try to make things a little bit better in Cuba.
Mr. Adams: We’ve got just about a minute left, but I have to ask you this question. I’ve been to Cuba, too. To me it’s hypocritical if you—I understand all the things you just said, but yet we trade with China. And it seems to me like we’re saying well, if Cuba was bigger and bought more from us, we could overlook some of those things like we do with China. What’s the difference between the two other than the size?
Rep. Conaway: Ninety miles.
Mr. Adams: I mean, they’re not a threat to us.
Rep. Conaway: Not a threat to us. But we have leverage. We have a responsibility to use that leverage where we can. It’s not likely that our leverage with China would work, but I think our leverage with Cuba would work, and we’ve got an opportunity to be a proponent of helping the lives of ordinary, everyday Cubans be better. But it’s inevitable that we’ll open up full trade with Cuba at some point in time.
Mr. Adams: Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway.
[End of recording.]