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Rep. Bustos: We Need Trade Policies, Safety Net

Our Q&A with an up-and-comer in Congress who has influence on ag issues and more.

Representative Cheri Bustos (D-IL) is an up-and-coming member of Congress. She is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and serves the 17th Congressional District in northwestern Illinois. Growing up in Springfield, she came from a long line of farmers across the state. Her grandfather was a hog farmer; her uncle took over the family farm; and she has relatives across the state who are grain, beef cattle, and dairy producers.

Now living in Moline, Illinois, she is unique in Congress because she’s also had a career as a working journalist, having been a reporter for 17 years. She started her public service as a city council member from East Moline, then she ran for Congress. For the recent 2019 State of the Union, Bustos invited a third-generation corn and soybean farmer, Tom Mueller from Edgington, Illinois, to the event. 

In the fall of 2018, Bustos was elected chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, so she will have a lot of influence in the 2020 Democratic election cycle. Successful Farming magazine caught up with Representative Bustos by phone to discuss her outlook for implementing the 2018 Farm Bill, in addition to the trade war, E15, and more.

SF: What are your highest priorities for the House Ag Committee in 2019?

CB: I’ve been involved with two farm bills now. When I was first elected, I sat on the Ag Committee and we passed the first farm bill of 2014. And, I was actually on the conference committee that negotiated the latest farm bill. My No. 1 priority was making sure that we keep crop insurance. Just don’t mess with crop insurance – that was basically the message I got from family farmers. We replaced direct payments with a robust crop insurance out of the 2014 Farm Bill. I think we did a good job on that. But I think now we’ve got to make sure that we are focusing on more stability to our trade policies. Especially for all of our agricultural producers. We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got an adequate farm safety net for our producers, who are hurting right now.

SF: Are there any elements of the 2018 Farm Bill that you will fight for in terms of rulemaking?

CB: I actually had several provisions within the farm bill that were important to the congressional district I come from. That’s why we did this. We had the Farmers of Tomorrow Act; what that does is change regulations to make it easier for young farmers to buy land and put down roots. I think it’s for every six farmers over the age of 65, there’s one farmer under the age of 30 getting into it. We also had a good proposal that addresses rural health, called the Rural Health Liaison Act. What that does is create new rural health liaisons under USDA to coordinate funding mechanisms and making sure that we can deliver health care to more rural Americans.

SF: How do you help resolve this trade war with farmers at the tip of the spear?

CB: At the State of the Union, I was the only member of Congress who invited a corn and soybean farmer. And I did that so we could point to this issue. This trade war is hurting our producers. Frankly, the White House is causing a lot of pain for our farmers. I think it’s a reckless trade war, and we’ve got these erratic trade policies. You don’t know from one day to the next what’s going to happen. But what we do know is that we are losing these markets long term.

This has taken 30 years to build, and with one year of bad trade policy, we are causing real and lasting damage. So we need a course correction, and – to your specific question – we need a willing partner in the White House to do that.

I was presenting to the corn growers from all over the country and I started talking about the trade war. The first guy who stands up says, “Well, what would you do to China?” And I said I wouldn’t be doing what we are doing right now. Obviously, we have to hold them accountable; they are cheaters, as it comes to stealing our intellectual property. But we can’t fight a trade war on the backs of our farmers on behalf of trillion-dollar companies like Apple. The answer is we have to work together on this.

SF: Do you think there’​ll be another round of farm mitigation payments?

CB: That is the plan, and you know the government shutdown even impacted that. But we’ve got to make it right. We’ve got a lot of victims of this trade war who are out there, and the pledge was to help them out. But I anticipate that there will be another round.

SF: Will E15 be cleared for use this summer?

CB: I have great appreciation for the fact that the president has announced that he’s in favor of year-round E15, but that’s not the way it works. You cannot just make an announcement and not have policy and planning to implement that. As of today, we have not sat down to figure out how that is going to happen. I am a strong proponent of making E15 year-round. I want to see that happen. Other than the announcement from the president, there has not been movement to make sure that it happens.

SF: What is it like to be one of the few journalists serving in Congress?

CB: I swear that I was born to be a journalist. It’s just the common denominator of anybody who comes from the journalism world – that we are naturally curious about everything that’s in front of us. I think that serves me well as a member of Congress. The other thing that you bring to the table as a journalist is that you know when you walk into the newsroom every single day, you have the potential to make a difference – whether it’s exposing corruption or writing about families.

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