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Donnelly Says Farm Bill Deal Close; Tariff Solution Still Far Off

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, September 14, 2018

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly had mixed news for farmers as he spoke last Saturday in northern Marshall County.

The good news: A conference committee is close to a final agreement on the farm bill, which, according to Donnelly, will have strong crop insurance and conservation titles. It also will have money to expand broadband access in rural areas. The only piece "in limbo," he said, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

"If everybody gives a little bit, we can get there," Donnelly said, talking to Farm Bureau leaders from LaPorte, St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties. The meeting was held at Charlie Houin's farm near Bremen.

While the farm piece is "basically done," there are differences in the SNAP provisions in the House and Senate farm bills. Three of the four key players on the conference committee have agreed to the SNAP provisions. According to Donnelly, Sens. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D) of Minnesota are all on board. The lone holdout is Mike Conaway (R) of Texas.

Donnelly, a Democrat from Granger, is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

He said there is a possibility that Congress may need to approve a short extension on the current farm bill until a final agreement is reached.

The bad news: Tariffs. Crop prices have dropped by roughly 20 percent since May 1. With low prices, farmers are facing major financial risk. There is also the potential long-term damage to our export markets.

"My concern is that this doesn't end by harvest time," Donnelly said, adding, "We need to get this wound down soon."

He said he has relayed these concerns directly to President Trump, including the fact that farmers in particular are being targeted by the counter-tariffs from China. During his meeting with area farmers last Saturday, he shared the substance of his conversation with the president.

"I asked the president, and said, 'Look, we need an off-ramp. We need to get this settled. We need to get this done. People are being put at risk. Their families, their farms—they are being put at risk.'"

According to Donnelly, President Trump disagreed, saying, "I think it's going well."

"I said, Mr. President, with all due respect, I promise you, this is not going well," Donnelly said.

He told the president that many of the farmers who are being hurt by the trade war are also some of his strongest supporters. Donnelly said those farmers "are counting on you to do the common-sense thing."

Trump then reportedly told Donnelly, "Thanks for letting me know."

The Indiana senator, who is up for reelection this fall, said the Trump administration is moving forward with $200 billion in additional tariffs on China, and is prepared to slap another $267 billion in tariffs on the Asian nation at a later point.

"I have not heard any answers as to where this wraps up," Donnelly said.

He admits that China is a bad actor and has been dumping steel on the U.S. for many years. However, he said that situation can be fixed without tariffs.

He supports the U.S. Department of Agriculture's move to provide direct payments to producers impacted by the counter-tariffs.

"But that is nothing compared to what we need to do," Donnelly said.

Corn growers also have an eye on the administration's handling of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), which mandates how much ethanol can be blended into gasoline. Currently, the law requires retailers to include a 15 percent blend but only for part of the year (summer driving season is exempt). Farm groups are lobbying for a 15 percent blend year-round, and President Trump has said he is "very close" to approving year-round use of E15.

Donnelly said the RFS is "critically important" to corn growers, and said the new EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is more friendly than previous administrator, who was undermining the RFS by granting "hardship waivers" to oil refiners.

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