Note: This is the first of ongoing reports from this trip.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dialogue is the keyword among Ohio Farm Bureau Federation presidents this week in Washington, D.C., where the top members from the state’s 88 counties are educating lawmakers about concerns, and learning a few things to take home, as well.
OFBF President Brent Porteus got the program started on Monday, reminding county leaders of the important opportunity they have to interact with Congress.
“You bring real (farm) experience to Washington, but you also are building relationships with your members of Congress,” he said. “Value your participation here in Washington on behalf of those you represent back home.”
OFBF Executive Vice President Jack Fisher spoke to the group Tuesday morning, saying “it’s critically important that they (congressmen) hear from you off the farm — here in Washington.”
On Tuesday, Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, gave a morning talk on the 2012 farm bill, world trade and the resilience of Ohio agriculture. He announced his Grown in Ohio listening tour — a series of visits and roundtables to discuss new agricultural opportunities and existing challenges, and prepare for the farm bill.
Brown said agriculture is “by far the most important industry in our state,” and also emphasized its importance “in feeding the world.”
Japan, which has been devastated the past couple weeks by an earthquake and tsunami, takes in about 25 percent of its total agricultural imports from the United States. That makes it the largest buyer of U.S. corn and the second largest buyer of U.S. wheat, Brown said.
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner hosted an afternoon forum. Speakers included representatives Frank Lucas, R-Okla.; Steve Stivers, R-Ohio; Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio; Jim Renacci, R-Ohio; Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio; and Bill Johnson, R-Ohio.
Boehner said the last election showed the need to control spending and to create more jobs. He said the Obama administration is considering several policies that will further burden the economy, including a new health care policy, and environmental regulations that create more expenses and restrictions.
“If we want to employ more people in America, if we want our economy to grow, we’ve got to get the government out of the business of punishing those who we expect to expand our economy,” he said.
A new energy policy in America is long overdue, he said, and in a time when gas prices are soaring and the country continues to spend billions annually for fuel from overseas — from people not friendly to the United States.
“This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me, or, frankly, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to most Americans,” he said.
He faulted “a handful powerful, radical environmental groups” for hindering the nation’s progress toward an energy policy, and said growing energy is critically important to growing the economy.
“You can’t grow the economy without energy,” he said. “If you have more people working, you need more electricity, you need more energy sources.”
Several members expressed concerns about new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, which they expect could complicate a wide variety of farm practices.
Boehner assured the crowd that EPA and other agencies will be given close scrutiny when they form new regulations, to determine whether they are necessary and how they affect industries like agriculture.
“There’s an endless number of regulations coming out of this administration and we need to understand under what authority do they have to do this,” he said.
Former Ohio Farm Bureau President Bob Gibbs took the floor near the end of Tuesday’s briefings, saying “the EPA is out of control.”
The freshman congressman said EPA is part of a series of regulatory programs that business owners and farmers repeatedly tell him are affecting their ability to stay business.
“It’s in your DNA to grow your business,” he said, but regulatory agencies need kept in check for it to happen.
Gibbs also tackled the issue of national debt, which he said not only is growing unacceptably, but with the consequence of higher interest rates likely to come.
“The track we’re on, not too many years down the road, if we continue this path, the debt goes through the roof and interest becomes a big expenditure and it’s not sustainable,” he said. “It’s a national security issue right now.”
During the Tuesday session, Sen. Brown also fielded concerns about the EPA, but reminded farmers to keep in mind the good work the agency has done, including improvements to Lake Erie.
“There is a proud history in this country of what we’ve done with the environment,” he said.
Brown said he believes climate change is real, and that regulations that affect the United States the same as other nations can work.
The group will hear from Ohio’s Republican Sen. Rob Portman Wednesday, with similar issues likely to be raised.
Farm Bureau presidents also will make their way up Capitol Hill Wednesday for pre-scheduled meetings with selected lawmakers.