By Mark Tarallo
SALT LAKE CITY (B)--Although many U.S. farm commodity groups are keen on Congress awarding China permanent normal trade relations status this year, House and Senate aides indicated Feb. 26 that right now it was uncertain whether the issue would win a majority in the agriculture committees.
Permanent NTR status would guarantee Chinese goods the same low-tariff access to U.S. markets as products from nearly every other country. Right now Congress votes on granting this trade benefit to China annually, allowing the country to benefit from this status on a year-to-year basis.
For its part, China has agreed to significant market access concessions if it is awarded permanent NTR.
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and many U.S. farm industry groups have argued that these concessions are crucial to the future of U.S. farm exports, so they are lobbying Congress to approve permanent NTR this year.
But at a farm policy session Feb. 26, aides from both the House and Senate agriculture committees indicated that great uncertainty surrounded the issue. The session was held as part of the National Farmers Union annual convention, held here Feb. 25 to 28.
"Permanent NTR faces enormous challenges among all different fronts," said Tom Bias, head of government affairs for the NFU, who moderated the farm
All the committee aides, Democrats and Republicans alike, agreed.
Chief among these obstacles are concerns about the recent belligerent remarks made by Chinese officials about Taiwan and a State Department report released Friday that is critical of human rights violations in China, said Mark Halverson, a senior Democratic aide on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"That is going to complicate things," Halverson said.
Even an aide to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-IN, a supporter of permanent NTR, said concerns about China's diplomatic and human rights behavior were hurting the effort to advance permanent NTR.
"It is not clear where this will all go," said Keith Luse, a senior aide to Lugar.
The aides said the issue was particularly contentious in that it divided members of Congress within both parties.
This was evident at the NFU convention. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-ND, spoke at the convention opening Feb. 25 and voiced support for permanent NTR, saying that it would be good for U.S. agriculture.
Fellow Democrat Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-MN, said in a speech Feb. 26 evening that he disagreed with Pomeroy's analysis and did not think permanent NTR would be good for U.S. agriculture.
Wellstone's comments reflect a view that some NFU members voice in private. Proponents of this argument say U.S. farm exporters often lose out in trade pacts because the U.S. opens its markets while its trade partner flouts compliance with the agreement and erects trade barriers.
This scenario, these critics say, could be disastrous with a country like China, which despite its limited supply of arable land still has tremendous potential as an exporter of some U.S. farm commodities.
NFU members are scheduled to debate the permanent NTR issue Feb. 27 or 28 in an attempt to arrive at an official position. Speaking to reporters, NFU President Leland Swenson said the group had said in the past it would cautiously support permanent NTR for China, but that could change.
"There is a lot of talk in the hallways," Swenson said.