OPINION Though the Trump administration has promised that China will import $40 billion worth of U.S. farm products this year, his administration officials are indicating the value may in fact be significantly less. This past week during the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Outlook Forum, the agency’s chief economist, Robert Johansson, suggested that fiscal-year agricultural exports to China will be closer to $14 billion. Though that would be $26 billion shy of earlier estimates, it would still be a $4 billion increase as compared to 2019 exports.
Shortly after those comments were made, President Donald Trump tweeted, “If our formally targeted farmers need additional aid until such time as the trade deals with China, Mexico, Canada and others fully kick in, that aid will be provide by the federal government, paid for out of the massive tariff money coming into the USA!”
That apparent commitment to provide another round of Market Facilitation Program payments if necessary directly contradicts U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s repeated assertions that no more trade assistance will be made available.
Though the National Farmers Union appreciates the administration’s ongoing support for farmers affected by trade disputes, the organization has been critical of its haphazard approach to development and implementation. In a letter sent to Perdue I urged the USDA to follow a “public and transparent process” in the event that additional trade assistance is administered.
“Our members appreciate the much-needed help (the Market Facilitation Program) provided in the last two years, but also know that this program must do better,” the letter reads. “I strongly suggest that USDA work with the House and Senate agriculture committees to convene a joint hearing to receive public comments, explore the present challenges with our export markets and to consider sound policies for distributing financial assistance.”
I expressed concerns about the complete exclusion of Congress from trade-assistance decision-making during both rounds of the Market Facilitation Program, particularly considering the significant sums of money involved.
“When the first iteration of (the Market Facilitation Program) was announced in the summer of 2018 … the USDA did not seek input from the legislative branch and spent approximately $10 billion over the course of six months,” I wrote.
That “opaque process” drew widespread criticism, potentially undermining support for future farm bills and agricultural spending. The first two rounds of the Market Facilitation Program were marked not only by the absence of collaboration but also inadequate review and an absence of long-term solutions.
“(The Market Facilitation Program) was used as a quick fix, spent $14.5 billion in a matter of months, and did not tackle larger problems in the farm safety net,” I said.
I added that the implementation was “rushed” and “seemingly spurred by a similar presidential tweet.”
To ensure that any additional trade assistance is a “sound investment” and “does not erode the underpinnings of future farm policy,” I asked the USDA to work closely with Congress on any future trade-assistance packages.
“Our members appreciate the much-needed help (the Market Facilitation Program) provided in the last two years, but also know that this program must do better,” the letter reads. “I strongly suggest that USDA work with the House and Senate agriculture committees to convene a joint hearing to receive public comments, explore the present challenges with our export markets, and to consider sound policies for distributing financial assistance.”