Economy & Budget

Celebrate agriculture, don't stifle agriculture

Today is National Agriculture Day. Today is a day to recognize all that America’s farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses do, a day to celebrate the abundance provided by our agricultural entrepreneurs.

As businessman-farmers ourselves, we know firsthand the challenges our producers face each and every day. We also know that the national debt crisis endangers the prosperity of everyone across the United States, and that wasteful farm program spending has been a real contributor over the decades. That’s why we introduced the Rural Economic Farm and Ranch Sustainability and Hunger (REFRESH) Act in October — a deficit-reduction bill that cuts an estimated $40 billion over 10 years, ends policies that work against market forces and offers viable insurance options for farmers.

As both chambers of Congress grasp for solutions to our mounting federal deficit and a farm bill that expires in a few short months, our bill remains the only comprehensive piece of agriculture legislation that can claim this level of savings, combined with fundamental policy reforms.

Previous op-eds by us this week here on the Congress Blog have outlined some of the farm policy improvements made in our bill: we propose energy programs to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil while also creating jobs across rural America; we call for conservation reforms that would free up land for farmers to grow more food while ensuring that important conservation programs are fiscally sustainable; and we offer commonsense reforms in the farm bill’s huge nutrition title that would reduce waste in food programs and close loopholes, saving $14 billion over the next 10 years while still allowing us to meet the needs of the hungry and fulfill our budgetary obligations.


REFRESH Act: Meeting needs of hungry while cutting costs

Our government’s $15.3 trillion debt casts a cloud of uncertainty over every American’s economic security. Americans from every walk of life—rural, urban, young, old—are left treading water in Washington’s sea of red ink. Too many politicians talk about cutting spending without following through. In reality, we can only tackle out-of-control deficits if we begin the work of setting priorities and finding savings. As conservatives, we know that, when it comes to nutrition programs, we must balance our fiscal obligations with our convictions to help those who are truly in need.

On one hand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 49 million people in the United States were food insecure last year. That means that, at times during the last year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.


Employer criticisms of new immigration rules are not credible

The Department of Labor (DOL) just issued new rules for the H-2B guest worker program, a temporary foreign worker program for jobs outside of agriculture that don’t require a college degree. The new rules will help put unemployed Americans back to work. This is especially true for those hardest hit by the recession: young workers and those with a high school diploma or less. The rules help prevent corporate greed from trumping the needs of the unemployed and simultaneously protect the most vulnerable immigrants in our workforce.

Unfortunately, employers that hire H-2B guest workers are lobbying Congress to kill or suspend the new rules, and they’re likely to challenge them in the courts, too. Rodney Alexander, a House Republican from Louisiana, has already proposed a joint resolution that would nullify them. Why? Because employers claim it is too difficult to fill job openings with U.S. workers, and that the new H-2B rules are so burdensome they will devastate entire industries. These are bogus claims: there are millions of available U.S. workers and the new rule’s requirements are modest.


Paving the way for the future of American agriculture

American agriculture always seems to get a bad rap. We are demagogued as huge, impersonal agribusiness that exploits workers. Nothing could be further from the truth. American agriculture is an innovative and diverse industry focused on healthy food production, community building and economic development.

My home state of Oregon is a prime example. We produce traditional agriculture crops, such as wheat and cattle, but we are primarily a state of family farms that grow specialty crops. Specialty crops, like vegetables, fruits, nursery crops and organics, account for less than five percent of harvested crops across the country. They receive only a fraction of funding from existing farm bill programs, yet represent nearly half of all domestic farm gate crop value.

In a twenty first century global economy it is going to be difficult for American agriculture to compete with countries that do not have our environmental standards, pay subminimum wages and receive significant national subsidies. However, we can compete by innovating, encouraging value added production and illustrating to everyday folks the dietary and economic value of buying American crops. American agriculture is beginning to realize that old methods of direct payments to not grow something make less and less sense to the public.


Farm Bill needs to be reauthorized this year

Agriculture is not a red or blue issue, but the framework of what built America. Most of our Founding Fathers were farmers, and understood the value of producing goods at home rather than only relying on imports to sustain our young nation. Today American agriculture is as strong as it’s ever been, but is poised again to take a backseat in Congress when producers need action.

The remainder of the 112th Congress is likely to be consumed by the debate of a variety of long term pieces of legislation, including corporate tax-reform, surface transportation funding, and debt reduction provisions. Unfortunately, the likelihood of Congress taking up long term agricultural reform legislation, commonly known as the Farm Bill, is looking increasingly less promising. This will leave the engine of the world’s most efficient agriculture industry wavering in the uncertainty of what the future holds.

When typically bipartisan bills such as surface transportation reform start becoming political theater, one has to wonder what will come of legislation that just 4 years ago passed with over 300 aye votes.


Cultivating our trade relations with Russia

Three years since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously pushed for a reset of relations between the United States and Russia, the two nations have made progress. International relations being not unlike a dance where both partners like to take the lead, strides and swings forward do not some without a misstep or two. With Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), we have an opportunity to create a more harmonious trade partnership where both nations play to their strengths and grow our markets.

The economic benefits for the United States are real. Russia’s accession creates a ripe opportunity to broaden market access for American agricultural products including beef, pork, and poultry - a commodity that has been mired in an uncertain off-and-on trade status in recent years. U.S. food and agricultural exports to Russia totaled nearly $1.3 billion in 2010 with $336 million of that in red meats and $311 million in poultry. These sales were during a time in which Russia had a nearly seven-month ban on U.S. poultry products due to differences in sanitary protocols, which resulted in an arbitrary trade barrier.


Best of budget - combining Tea Party and Occupy

Given Washington’s spectacular political dysfunction, many pundits seemed surprised that Congress extended payroll tax cuts by wide bipartisan margins. But both parties are now somewhat chastened after recent political pratfalls on the economy and taxes.

Many Democrats are beginning to realize that leading with a tax increase message, even taxes on the wealthy, as they did in the Senate last fall, represents a flawed political strategy. As bipartisan budget groups have noted, some tax increases will be needed to deal with long-term U.S. debt, but Democrats should present these as regrettable, while necessary. 


Look who pays less in taxes than Buffett and Romney

Corporations pay a lower effective tax rate than Warren Buffett and Mitt Romney, but you wouldn’t know it from all the complaints that our corporate tax rate puts our country at a competitive disadvantage. Last year, U.S. corporations paid just 12.1 percent of their earnings in federal corporate income taxes. Buffett’s tax rate is 17.4 percent; Romney’s reported 2010 tax rate was 13.9 percent.

The corporate tax system is riddled with loopholes and subsidies that do create competitive problems, but not the ones CEOs are talking about. Our broken tax system blesses U.S. multinational corporations with lots of loopholes that enable them to pay less in taxes than Main Street businesses. It allows large companies, even those in the same industry, to pay vastly different tax rates. It has starved our government of revenue, adding to the pressure for deep budget cutbacks rather than the investments needed to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, educate our children and support the innovation needed for economic success.


Greece should serve as a wake-up call

Just last week, a financial shock wave swept across Europe as Greece narrowly averted economic collapse by securing its second major bailout in as many years.

While markets everywhere breathed a sigh of relief that the $172 billion rescue package temporarily saved Greece from insolvency, the forecast for continued stability remains in doubt.

Could what’s happening in Greece actually happen here in America? To some extent, it already has. Greece and the United States are two of the seven countries in the world with a national debt that exceeds total economic output.

Among advanced economies, the United States and Greece join Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan and Portugal on the list of nations whose debt is greater than their gross domestic product (GDP). The last time America’s debt topped the size of its overall economy was in 1947, due to the costs incurred in World War II. Today there is no excuse for spending more than we’re taking in. Frankly, it’s a recipe for disaster.


Presidential candidates must address our debt

After a year in which the country was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and the federal deficit surpassed the $1 trillion mark for the third straight year, you would think that the number-one priority for the president and Congress would be to put America’s fiscal house in order. But instead, both sides seem content to sit on their hands -- at least until the election is over -- while the Treasury issues more and more IOUs.

That’s unfortunate, because the most important issue facing our nation is our worsening debt situation, and we are rapidly running out of time in which we can restore fiscal sanity on our terms, rather than allowing an economic fiscal crisis to occur.