WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation who attended the annual presidents’ trip to the capitol March 14-16 took a set of issues they hope will be on the minds of their legislators for the remainder of the year, and years to come.
Some of the biggest issues included economic growth and national debt, new regulatory mandates from the Environmental Protection Agency, world trade and creating new trade markets, as well as estate taxes and the 2012 farm bill.
Democrats and Republicans both talked about the economic challenges facing all of America, especially agriculture. But they also spoke optimistically about what agriculture — typically a small business — can do.
“We’re at the tipping point where if we don’t get our act together on this fiscal crisis and on the economy, to sort of restart that American Dream, we’re going to fall behind,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, during a speech over breakfast March 16.
Portman said some of the decisions that need made on spending and the economy will “really revolutionize the way we think about things.”
But cutting expenses is not enough, unless the economy also begins to grow.
“I don’t think we can cut our way out of the problems we’ve got on the fiscal side,” he said. “I think we have to also grow our way out of it.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, likened the nation’s debt to a national crisis — one that will only get worse if spending isn’t cut.
“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.”
Farmers will be a big part of strengthening the economy, congressmen and congresswomen said, because they are hard workers, investors, employers, as well as suppliers of food and fiber to the nation and world.
But to do what they do — like any small business — they need the freedoms from unnecessary and unfair regulation.
“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,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
He said the country needs a sound energy policy and to do more to achieve energy independence. He sees energy, job creation and the economy closely tied.
“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.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, fielded concerns over the EPA during his address March 14, but reminded farmers to also 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.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, said farmers care for their environment, but also want to use the resources available.
“I grew up with a healthy respect for the environment, but I also grew up understanding that these are resources here for us to use,” he said. “We need to get to them responsibly, but just because they sit on federal land should not make them off limits.”
While highlighting the importance of agriculture at home, Brown also stressed the importance of U.S. agriculture throughout the world, and in places like Japan, which has been devastated the past month by an earthquake and tsunami.
Japan takes in about 25 percent of its total agricultural imports from the United States, he said. That makes it the largest buyer of U.S. corn and the second largest buyer of U.S. wheat.
Brown was asked about issues with U.S. trade with China, and trade in general. He said both political parties have made mistakes and need to do more to secure trade.
“We are in a huge economic battle with them (China),” he said. “Until we get our trade policy right and we start enforcing our trade laws for agriculture and for manufacturing, we’re in trouble.”
Portman said there are more than 150 ongoing trade agreements, none of which the United States is part of.
“We’ve got to be more competitive across the board and on trade we’ve got to open up more markets,” he said.
Despite the struggles of the economy, several members of Congress told farmers they will be part of the effort that leads the nation forward.
“You guys are actually driving the economy right now and we need to make sure not only in your business, but in all small businesses, that we get rid of some of these over burdensome regulations to allow you guys to prosper,” said Congressman Jim Renacci, R-Ohio.
Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, spared little mercy in her criticism over some of EPA’s new ideas that hurt farmers. Schmidt told a group of farm bureau presidents from her southwestern Ohio district that she doesn’t think the EPA’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, understands how farmers are “good stewards of the earth.”
“The farmer is the good guy,” she insisted. “You are the ones coming in to save America.”
The group also heard from House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who talked about the progress of the 2012 farm bill. It’s expected that roughly 80 percent of its funds will go to food and nutrition programs, with crop insurance and farm programs constituting the rest.
Lucas said Speaker Boehner has a good understanding of agriculture, and is looking forward to working with the committee to form the bill.
Because of the large number of freshmen congressmen, Lucas said the committee won’t begin writing it for at least another year.
In the meantime committee members will continue to work on addressing its priorities, and assessing the budgetary cuts they’ll likely face.
Lucas told farmers it’s going to be a challenging year legislatively, but spoke optimistically about the committee and what it can do.
“Stay engaged, stay involved and educate all those freshman members of your delegation,” he said. “We can steak this big old sack of lemons we’ve been given budgetwise, and we can make some lemonade out of it.”