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Rural Lawmakers May be Pivotal on TPP

Farm-state lawmakers will play an outsize role in deciding ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc covering nations that buy 42% of U.S. agricultural exports. The role is a reflection of the importance of exports to farm income and the fact that agriculture is one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy to consistently run a trade surplus. Even with the strong dollar driving up the price of American-grown goods, the agriculture trade surplus is forecast at $16 billion in this trade year.

“Every trade bill I’ve been around relied on agriculture to deliver votes in the House and Senate,” says Dale Moore of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

President Obama went to USDA headquarters on the National Mall – the first president to visit USDA since 2008 – to kick off the ratification drive at a meeting that included leaders of three agricultural groups. Obama’s first example of the benefits expected from TPP was the reduction of Japanese tariffs on U.S. beef.

Fewer than three dozen House Democrats voted last summer to allow TPP to be submitted for a yes-or-no vote with no amendments allowed, making support by Republicans important for victory. A close vote is possible on TPP, so the administration is courting votes everywhere. If farm groups agree that TPP will remove trade barriers and boost farm income, it could be a persuasive argument.

“Given the current uncertainty, if I were the administration, I would start from the assumption that every vote could count,” says Pat Westhoff of the think tank Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute. “My impression . . . is that there may be more members who will vote based, at least in part, on agricultural concerns than one might guess, given agriculture’s share of the overall economy.”

There will be months of debate before TPP goes to a vote. The text of the 12-nation agreement must be available for public review for 60 days, and Congress is allowed 90 days to decide whether to approve TPP. A vote might not come until March or April, when the political season will be in full fever.

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