Trump, Clinton surrogates clash over Ag regulations (via Agri-Pulse Communications)

Surrogates for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clashed sharply over agricultural regulations and the estate tax at a Farm Foundation Forum on Wednesday, but they agreed that Congress should protect nutrition spending in the next farm bill.

Kathleen Merrigan, a former deputy agriculture secretary speaking for Clinton the forum, said a new farm bill needed to be “passed on time” in the next Congress, and said Trump should reject the Republican platform’s call for splitting farm and nutrition programs.

Sam Clovis, a co-chair of the Trump campaign and Trump’s lead adviser on agriculture policy, responded by agreeing that nutrition programs should stay in the farm bill, and he took another step from Republican orthodoxy by saying that the way to reduce nutrition spending is to promote economic growth that will put more people to work, rather than cutting programs.

House Republicans have been pushing to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but Clovis said that any reductions to SNAP spending “should be natural cuts.”

“If we have an economy that’s growing at 4 percent and we’re able to get people off the sidelines – we have fewer and fewer people who qualify for nutrition assistance programs – then I think we reduce that number and we reduce the cost of our food stamp program. That’s really the approach that ought to be taken on this issue,” Clovis said.

Clovis probably raised eyebrows of many in agriculture by saying that “irresponsible farming” methods on marginal lands because of high commodity prices had contributed to the “dead patch” in the Gulf of Mexico, a reference to the hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Clovis said the government needed to “incentivize” more conservation on the part of farmers.

Clovis also said policy makers should “start taking a look at weaning ourselves” from price supports. But asked by reporters after the forum to elaborate on the comment, Clovis said he was talking about the need to assess how current commodity programs are working.

Merrigan, who teaches food policy at The George Washington University and co-chairs AGree, a group working on bipartisan agricultural policy proposals, criticized Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, for voting repeatedly against the 2008 farm bill when he was a member of the House. Pence has a “dismal record” on farm policy, she said.

Clinton, then a senator from New York, voted for the 2002 farm bill and also voted to override a presidential veto of the 2008 version.

“What I can say with 100 percent certainty is that I have never met a member of Congress who liked everything in a farm bill,” said Merrigan, who worked as a Senate aide as well as at USDA earlier in her career.

Clovis emphasized the Trump campaign’s message that farmers are being over-regulated, citing the “waters of the United States” rule that the candidate has promised to kill. He also said that tax reform would be the “highest priority” of a Trump administration. Trump’s plan includes reducing corporate tax rates to 15 percent and ending the estate tax.

Merrigan acknowledged that there is a “lot of anxiety” among farmers about the WOTUS rule, but she said the concerns about its impact on agriculture have been “blown out of proportion” with “bogeyman worries.”

“We just need to tamp down the rhetoric here,” she said.

Merrigan said the “anti-regulatory drumbeat is not helpful. We need to get more calibrated in our discussion.” Regulations “give certainty to our businesses … and farmers and ranchers,” she said.

She also used her closing remarks to defend the estate tax, saying that issue also was overblown. “It’s going to hit you if you have a billion dollar farm.” What farmers need is better estate planning, she said.

The surrogates offered little new on trade and immigration policy.

On immigration, Clovis reiterated the campaign’s promise to streamline the H-2A visa program to make it easier for farms to import the labor that they need. Merrigan emphasized Clinton’s pledge to enact immigration reform legislation that would provide a path to citizenship to immigrants who are now in the country illegally.

Both she and Clovis were pressed on how the candidates would approach the Trans-Pacific Partnership if elected president, but the surrogates offered few clues.

“What’s pretty clear for all of us in agriculture … is that we haven’t made a very convincing case to the American people about the importance of trade to American agriculture,” said Merrigan.

Clovis said Trump was worried about Americans who would lose their jobs under the TPP. Beyond that issue, he said Trump would “make sure that you (in agriculture) have access to as many markets as possible.”

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