Interview: Rep. Mike Conaway, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture

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Born and raised in West Texas, Mike Conaway is proud to represent Texas’ 11th Congressional District since coming to Congress in 2005. He serves as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, where he strongly advocates for farmers, ranchers, rural communities, and consumers while ensuring programs under the committee’s jurisdiction are defensible and financially responsible.

Prior to becoming Agriculture Committee chairman, Conaway served as chairman of the House Ethics Committee and held leadership roles as chairman or ranking member of two Agriculture subcommittees since the 111th Congress. In addition to his role as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, he currently serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Conaway was instrumental in the passage of the 2008 and 2014 farm bills, in which he focused largely on strengthening the agricultural economy. He believes the benefits of a strong rural economy are felt in every community in America. A lifelong fiscal conservative, Conaway is committed to sound farm policy, protecting taxpayer dollars, and overseeing implementation of the Agricultural Act of 2014 as well as agencies and projects at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last Congress, the Agriculture Committee conducted a top-to-bottom review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in efforts to strengthen the program for individuals and families in need of temporary assistance.

Conaway graduated from East Texas State University, now known as Texas A&M University-Commerce, where he studied accounting and played football. He then served two years in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood and went on to become a Certified Public Accountant. He was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, where he served as a board member and chairman. He and his wife, Suzanne, live in Midland and have four children and seven grandchildren.

This interview took place in early January, prior to the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

 

U.S. Agriculture Outlook: It’s been two years since the United States started taking steps to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and ease restrictions on trade, with the goal, in part, to increase commerce between the two nations. You felt at the time that this move did nothing for the Cuban people living under the oppressive Castro regime. Now, two years later, you have co-sponsored a bill, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, that aims to make trade transactions easier while still providing safeguards for American agricultural producers. What do the bill’s protections entail? How have you seen agricultural trade between the United States and Cuba develop or change since December 2014, and how do you see the bill’s protections working in that landscape?

Rep. Mike Conaway: Despite the overtures from President [Barack] Obama, we have yet to see tangible improvements in agricultural trade with Cuba. Instead, the Castro regime continues to treat food imports as a political football. That is made possible by the fact that all import decisions are made by a regime-controlled import monopoly known as Alimport.

While the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act works to provide export opportunities for U.S. farmers and ranchers, one of the hallmarks of the legislation is the safeguards it puts in place. For example, while it would allow market promotion programs to be used in Cuba, no funds are permitted to flow to entities controlled by the Castro regime.

The Obama administration has shown a commitment to support and invest in programs to benefit rural America and to address those communities’ particular needs; as examples, the administration created the White House Rural Council to coordinate programs aimed at helping rural communities, and since 2009, the USDA’s Rural Housing Service has invested $154.9 billion to assist 1.2 million rural families in buying, refinancing, and maintaining their homes. However, in comments on past budget proposals put forth by Obama, you stated that proposed tax increases, among other things, showed that he is out of touch with rural America. Do you feel any of the Obama administration’s efforts toward supporting rural communities hit the mark? What changes in this arena would you like to see going forward?

On numerous occasions, I have commended Secretary [Tom] Vilsack for his work at USDA, most notably for his work in implementing the 2014 Farm Bill. While I believe he was a very capable secretary, I do believe that the broader administration was completely out of touch with rural America. The president’s proposals to eliminate stepped-up tax basis would have hammered farm families at one of their most difficult times, as they transition from one generation to the next. Further, the administration’s repeated budget proposals to gut crop insurance ignored the fact that crop insurance is virtually universally supported in farm country and is the primary risk management tool underpinning the rural economy. Perhaps most egregious, however, was the administration’s regulatory assault on rural America. From WOTUS [Waters of the United States] to endangered species, this administration had an endless appetite for regulating American farmers and ranchers.

In 2015, China exceeded allowable limits on subsidies to its corn, rice, and wheat producers by $100 billion, and it’s not the first time China has veered from the parameters of trade agreements. In September 2016, the United States initiated a trade enforcement action against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in response. What, in your view, are the next steps for dealing with China on this issue and with other trade partners who break trade commitments?

We have been sounding the alarm in the Agriculture Committee on this issue for years. The United States actively works to abide by its commitments in the WTO, and when other countries ignore their obligations, it puts our farmers and ranchers at a distinct disadvantage. While the focus is on China, it’s important to note that they are not alone. For example, India is deploying many of the same types of policies and, in some cases, they are doing so more egregiously than China. If we are going to continue ratcheting down support to our growers, it’s vital that other countries abide by the rules as well.

With the Doha Round [a round of trade negotiations among the WTO membership] effectively over, I think it is important that future negotiations on topics like agricultural subsidies reflect the significant reforms made by the United States. I think it is equally important for future negotiations to start acknowledging the fact that some of the large, advanced developing countries can and are distorting global markets to a greater degree than their developed counterparts.

You expressed concerns about particulars of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal back in October 2015. Where do things currently stand with TPP? Have your concerns with the deal been addressed?

My remaining concerns with TPP dealt primarily with rice access in Japan and inequitable use of ISDS [investor-state dispute settlement] provisions. By and large, TPP was viewed very favorably by the agricultural community, but the benefits to agriculture are weighed against a litany of other concerns raised by my colleagues, with the future of TPP looking rather bleak. [Editor’s note: President Donald Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from TPP on Jan. 24, 2017, after this interview.]

The House Agriculture Committee recently finished a two-year review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a program that accounts for nearly 80 percent of farm bill spending. What prompted such an in-depth review? How often do such in-depth reviews of agriculture programs take place – and should they happen more often? Less often?

Farm bills are typically negotiated every five years. Agriculture programs – particularly the farm safety net – [are] subjected to near constant scrutiny. In the last farm bill, it was reformed again with estimated spending on traditional farm policy reduced by 30 percent at the time.

In the case of SNAP, the last major reform was as part of the 1996 welfare reforms. Spending on SNAP has doubled under each of the last two administrations. I hear constant concerns from my colleagues and constituents about problems they see with the program and a perceived lack of accountability. Unfortunately, in the last farm bill debate, the conversation devolved largely into a fight about arbitrary spending reductions. We also heard complaints about a lack of hearings during the process.

This time around, we decided to take a very close look at what is and is not working in the program. We have intentionally avoided any conversations about arbitrary spending reduction targets. Instead, we are looking at what is and isn’t working, and we will let that conversation drive any needed policy changes. If that leads to spending reductions (or not), then so be it.

What work is underway so far on the 2018 Farm Bill? What are some particular changes you’d like to see in the legislation?

We held more than 80 hearings in the 114th Congress. Many of those hearings were looking at what is and isn’t working in the current farm bill. I expect to continue farm bill hearings in the spring, as well as a series of listening sessions, with those increasingly focusing on the content of the next farm bill.

Beyond the comments on SNAP above, we must address cotton and dairy policy in the next farm bill. Our cotton producers have been left without an effective safety net to protect against the predatory trade practices of China and India. Some dairy producers are concerned that the new dairy margin protection program has not worked as expected. These are among a host of other issues that will be addressed in the next farm bill.

What is your sense so far of the Trump administration’s policy priorities in regard to agriculture?

I want to give the administration time to get its ducks in a row, but I like what I’ve seen so far. The administration will waste no time in rolling back much of the Obama administration’s regulatory assault on rural America. The [president] has signaled strong support for the farm safety net, which is obviously important in farm country. And, while there is some angst over trade, the [president] understands the vital importance of being able to export our agricultural products. As I noted above, we have been sounding the alarm for years on the fact that the United States continues to reform while we watch much of the rest of the world take advantage of the void. I think his strong stance on trade enforcement can and will bode well for American agriculture.

This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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