Obama, Romney stake out farm views to seek your vote open
By Larry Dreiling
In a closely polled election campaign, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are sparing few resources to claim victory.
That includes perhaps the most detailed accounting of agricultural positions by two candidates in years.
As a candidate in 2008, Obama outlined a lengthy rural position statement on his candidate website. He repeats that sort of statement in 2012. Romney recently released a statement on his vision for a vibrant rural America on his candidate website.
The American Farm Bureau Federation also issues a questionnaire to the candidates. This year's was AFBF's longest, showing energy issues and farm policy as driving forces in the candidate's responses. The environment, labor and taxes were also issues on which AFBF sought responses from the candidates. The responses were highly detailed.
Here are the questions and responses.
Agriculture is an energy-intensive industry and volatile prices significantly affect the cost of growing crops. What policies will you support to meet our energy needs and strengthen energy security? What role do you see for agricultural-based biofuels in the nation's energy supply?
Obama: Our rural communities, farmers, and ranchers can increase our energy independence and boost the transition to a clean energy economy. U.S. biofuel production is at its highest level in history. Last year, rural America produced enough renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel to meet roughly 8 percent of our needs, helping us increase our energy independence to its highest level in 20 years. We are increasing the level of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline, and the new Renewable Fuel Standard helped boost biodiesel production to nearly 1 billion gallons in 2011, supporting 39,000 jobs.
Romney: An affordable, reliable supply of energy is crucial to America's economic future. I have a vision for an America that is an energy superpower, rapidly increasing our own production and partnering with our allies, Canada and Mexico, to achieve energy independence on this continent by 2020. Taking full advantage of our energy resources will create millions of jobs, but this revolution in U.S. energy production will not just expand economic opportunity within the energy industry. Upstream businesses that supply the industry will experience a surge in demand, and perhaps the greatest benefit will occur downstream as agricultural businesses and manufacturers gain access to a more affordable and reliable supply of energy and feedstock. America's energy resources can be a long-term competitive advantage for American agriculture and their development is key to the success of the industry.
The increased production of biofuels plays an important part in my plan to achieve energy independence. In order to support increased market penetration and competition among energy sources, I am in favor of maintaining the Renewable Fuel Standard. I also support eliminating regulatory barriers to a diversification of the electrical grid, fuel system, and vehicle fleet. My policies broadly aim to ensure that all of our energy industries can sustainably become competitive, innovative and efficient.
In the context of regulating water quality, the Environmental Protection Agency has increasingly encroached on states' authority, from nutrient loadings in Florida to total maximum daily loads in the Chesapeake Bay to overall regulatory reach through proposing "guidance" that essentially gives EPA regulatory control over all waters. Do you support reaffirming the primary role of states in regulating both non-navigable waters and non-point source runoff?
Obama: Farmers are some of the best stewards of our environment, which is why my administration is working with more than 500,000 farmers and ranchers on more than 30 million acres of land to help conserve our lands and protect our waters. I have seen how we can bolster growth of our nation's agricultural economy while protecting our environment. Now there is a lot of misinformation out there about changes to clean water standards. We are not going to be applying standards to waters that have not been historically protected. And all existing exemptions for agricultural discharges and waters are going to stay in place. I believe that we can work together to safeguard the waters Americans rely on every day for drinking, swimming, and fishing, and those that support farming and economic growth.
Romney: Government oversight is of course crucial to the protection of our environment. But statutes and regulations that were designed to protect public health and the environment have instead been seized on by environmentalists as tools to disrupt economic activity and the enjoyment of our nation's environment altogether. President Obama's administration has embraced this approach, his EPA embarking on the most far-reaching regulatory scheme in American history.
Modernizing America's complex environmental statutes, regulations, and permitting processes is crucial to ensuring that the nation can develop its resources safely and efficiently. Laws should promote a rational approach to regulation that takes cost into account. Regulations should be carefully crafted to support rather than impede development. Repetitive reviews and strategic lawsuits should not be allowed to endlessly delay progress or force the government into imposing rules behind closed doors that it would not approve in public. Energy development, economic growth, and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand if the government focuses on transparency and fairness instead of seeking to pick winners and repay political favors.
A new farm bill will be enacted and implemented over the next four years during a time of significant evolution in agriculture. What policy and risk management tools do you propose to ensure that agriculture is a profitable, competitive and viable industry?
Obama: I understand the need for a strong farm safety net. That's why I increased the availability of crop insurance and emergency disaster assistance to help over 590,000 farmers and ranchers keep their farms in business after natural disasters and crop loss. My administration expanded farm credit to help more than 100,000 farmers struggling during the financial crisis to keep their family farms and provide for their families. And as farmers continue to go through hard times because of this drought, we are expanding access to low-interest loans, encouraging insurance companies to extend payment deadlines and opening new lands for livestock farmers to graze their herds.
And I know that any farm bill passed this year--and there needs to be a farm bill passed this year--needs to have adequate protections for America's farmers. That's why I have called for maintaining a strong crop insurance program and an extended disaster assistance program. We can reduce the deficit without sacrificing rural American economic growth, as the Romney-Ryan budget would do. Instead of making farmers pay more for crop insurance, we will do it by cutting subsidies to crop insurance companies and better targeting conservation funding.
Romney: I support passage of a strong farm bill that provides the appropriate risk management tools that will work for farmers and ranchers throughout the country. In the near term, my immediate priority should be given to enacting disaster relief for those not traditionally covered by crop insurance as this year's drought has worsened. My running mate, Paul Ryan, voted for this relief in the House. Unfortunately, the Democrat-controlled Senate went home for August break without enacting them.
On the broader question of farm programs, we must be cognizant that our agricultural producers are competing with other nations around the world. Other nations subsidize their farmers, so we must be careful not to unilaterally change our policies in a way that would disadvantage agriculture here in our country. In addition, we want to make sure that we don't ever find ourselves in a circumstance where we depend on foreign nations for our food the way we do with energy. Ultimately, it is in everyone's interest to achieve a level playing field on which American farmers can compete.
There are many factors involved in the economic downturn, but federal budget policy and the gridlock that is prohibiting restoration of sound fiscal policy are important factors. What would be your proposed foundation for reforming federal fiscal and budgeting policy?
Obama: We can't grow our economy in the long run if we don't start taking our fiscal and budgeting policy seriously. That's why earlier this year, I put forward a detailed plan for over $4 trillion in deficit reduction--including $1 trillion in spending cuts enacted last year--that finds savings in every part in the budget, brings domestic spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy in about 50 years, reforms Medicare and Medicaid, and asks the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share. The independent Congressional Budget Office has confirmed that my plan would reduce deficits over time, and stabilize the federal debt.
We faced a more than $1 trillion deficit on the day I took office--overwhelmingly caused by a bad economy and the policies of the prior administration--including two tax cuts weighted towards the wealthy, two wars, and the Medicare drug benefit, none of which were paid for. Paul Ryan voted for these policies, and Mitt Romney supported them. Now, Romney and Ryan are proposing $5 trillion in tax cuts without describing how they'd pay for them, returning us to those same failed policies of the past.
Romney: Getting reckless government spending under control is one of my top priorities. I'll implement a basic test that looks at every program and asks whether it is so critical that it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it. We'll work to empower states by sending programs that are currently controlled by the federal government back to the state level where local solutions can be tailored to meet local needs. And lastly, we will reduce the size of the federal government to make sure it's more efficient and productive.
U.S. agriculture has a long history of relying on temporary workers to help plant and harvest crops, tend orchards and manage livestock. What would you do to solve agriculture's labor shortage problem?
Obama: To contribute to the vitality of our agricultural economy, we must design a system that provides legal channels for U.S. employers to hire needed foreign workers. This system must protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers and only be used when U.S. workers are not available. I have called on Congress to pass and implement the AgJOBS Act, which allows farmers to hire the workers they rely on, and provides a path to citizenship for those workers.
But we cannot wait for Congress to act, which is why my administration is already taking action to improve the existing system for temporary agricultural workers. We are also standing up a new Office on Farmworker Opportunities at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the first office for farmer workers in the Agency's history. These measures are helping to identify the challenges faced by farmworkers and address the need for a reliable labor force.
Romney: I understand and appreciate the critical role that foreign temporary workers play in the agriculture industry. I also understand that our current system for issuing visas to temporary, seasonal workers is broken. Too often, harvest or tourist season passes before temporary worker visas are approved. Indeed, in 2006 and 2007, 43 percent of all applications for temporary agricultural workers were not processed on time. As president, I will make the system for bringing in temporary agricultural workers and other seasonal workers functional for both employers and workers. I will get rid of unnecessary requirements that delay issuance of a visa and will speed the processing of applications. A legal immigration system that works will provide a lawful alternative to workers who would otherwise enter illegally and employers who face the choice of either reducing operations or turning to illegal labor to address labor shortage problems.
Additionally, let me add what my administration will not do in this area. We will not propose heavy-handed regulations that will limit opportunities for our youth to be involved in agriculture. This is a stark contrast to what the Obama administration proposed in their regulations to prohibit those under the age of 16 from working on farms, in some cases even one owned by their family. The impacts of this rule would have negatively affected our next generation of farmers, ranchers, and rural leaders. That's why even the National FFA Organization opposed this misguided regulation. While the Obama administration has since retreated on this ill-advised regulation, it demonstrates how out of touch they are with our nation's family farms and their possible agenda if given another four years unhindered by reelection.
What priorities will you set for reforming the tax code? How should tax reform deal with the estate tax and capital gains taxes, two critical concerns for farmers and ranchers?
Obama: The tax code has become increasingly complicated and unfair. While many tax incentives serve important purposes, taken together the tax expenditures in the law are inefficient, unfair, duplicative, or even unnecessary. That's why I'm calling for comprehensive tax reform. First, we must extend the middle-class tax cuts for the 98 percent of Americans making less than $250,000 for another year. In fact, my proposal extends tax cuts for 97 percent of all small-business owners in America. But at the same time, we need to ask the wealthiest to pay their fair share. I remain opposed to the extension of tax cuts for those with household income above $250,000 and support the return of the estate tax exemption and rates to 2009 levels. These policies were unfair and unaffordable when they were passed, and they remain so today. Gov. Romney would take the opposite approach--his tax plan would require an average tax increase of $2,000 on middle-class families with kids, to pay for a new round of tax cuts for multi-millionaires, who would get an average break of $250,000.
My proposal would return the top tax rate on estates to 45 percent and reinstate the $7 million per-couple estate tax exemption, which exempts all but the wealthiest 3 in 1,000 decedents from the tax, but still helps us reduce the deficit. Independent experts estimate that under this plan, only 60 small farm and business estates in the entire country would owe any estate tax in 2013.
I'd also return capital gains taxes to the rates they were when Bill Clinton was president. But I'm calling for the permanent elimination of capital gains taxes on key small-business investments.
Romney: We must pass fundamental tax reform that lowers tax rates, broadens the base, achieves revenue neutrality, and maintains the progressivity of the tax code. This will help jump-start an economic recovery that will help create 12 million jobs in my first term in office. Regarding the estate tax and capital gains taxes, we must work to help all working families, including farmers and ranchers, keep more of what they earn. As president, I will eliminate the estate tax, helping keep family farms and ranches intact when businesses pass on from one generation to the next. I will also maintain the current 15 percent capital gains rate for wealthier Americans, while totally eliminating capital gains, dividend, and interest taxes for those who earn less than $200,000 per year. This will help middle-class families save tax free for long-term costs like college tuition and retirement, and to generally enjoy the freedom that accompanies financial security.
Expanded export opportunities are essential for agriculture's continued growth. What are your views on enforcing existing trade agreements and pursuing new trading opportunities for the United States?
Obama: I have expanded markets for American goods that help support over a million agriculture jobs here at home. In 2011, American farm income reached a record high, with a record number of agricultural exports and a record agriculture trade surplus that means more of our products are being sold in markets around the world. I signed three historic trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea that will increase exports by $2.3 billion--supporting nearly 20,000 American jobs. And I am working to expand local and regional food markets, a multi-billion dollar industry. We've increased the number of farmers markets by 53 percent since 2008. Through these policies, we are expanding markets for American goods abroad and at home.
Romney: As the United States is the largest agricultural exporter in the world, I understand that agricultural trade is incredibly important to our economy and to job creation in our country. A thriving agriculture sector is a key to getting our economy going again. We must continue to encourage this sector to grow, not stifle its success with ineffective trade policies that linger in bureaucracy and do not advance our economic interests. As president, I will work to promote multilateral trade agreements and reverse the course of the Obama administration, which has only enacted three trade agreements--all initiated in the Bush administration. As president, I will work with Congress to gain Trade Promotion Authority in order to facilitate the negotiation and completion of trade agreements. I will also stress that the World Trade Organization should reassert itself in order to resolve and restrict non-science-based trade restrictions prohibited by the overriding agreements, and I will value the important roles of the USDA and USTR as they provide focused attention and resources important to agricultural trade issues.
Why should farmers and ranchers vote for you?
Obama: I am committed to building the foundation for a renewed rural economy so that future generations can enjoy the way of life in rural America. I am building a rural economy built to last--one focused on reclaiming the security of the rural middle class by growing products that the rest of the world buys, and restoring the basic values of hard work and fair play that made our country great. Farmers and ranchers should vote for me because I am the only candidate that is committed to strengthening the farm safety net, strengthening rural economic growth, and supporting rural investments in clean energy.
Not only am I committed to providing farmers the safety they need to grow America's food, but I am also planning for a strong agricultural future, increasing funding for agricultural research and development by over 20 percent. My administration is boosting rural small businesses by making it easier for them to access the capital they need to sell their products, expand operations and hire workers. And we are investing in a 21st century infrastructure--expanding broadband service for nearly seven million rural residents. We are working aggressively with our nation's rural communities, farmers, and ranchers to increase our energy independence and boost the transition to a clean energy economy. We are also partnering with over 13,000 farmers and ranchers to support renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that help save energy and improve their bottom line. Unlike my opponent, I understand that clean energy can provide farmers with additional income and economic security, which is why I have called on Congress to extend tax incentives for wind energy, which Mitt Romney would let expire.
Romney: As the breadth of your questions indicate here, American agriculture needs relief from the Obama administration's crushing onslaught of unnecessary regulations; a common-sense energy policy that develops our resources right here at home; a renewed focus on opening new markets; and a pro-growth tax policy that encourages investment and recognizes that death should not be a taxable event. On day one of my administration, farmers and ranchers would have something they've lacked over the past several years--an advocate.
Farmers and ranchers are the backbone of America and play a critical role in ensuring Americans across the country have access to safe and affordable food. The fruit of your labor nourishes the world, and I admire your hard work in harvesting our country's bountiful resources. I also admire our farmers and ranchers for the critical role you play in the health of our economy, employing millions of Americans.
I'm honored to have interacted with so many farmers and ranchers during this campaign, and I'm grateful to have them supporting our efforts to turn around the economy and strengthen the middle class.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at email@example.com.