U.S. farm groups and their political allies in Congress, largely members from states with economies dominated by agriculture, have both direct and indirect influence over all components of U.S. trade policy. Free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations have been in the public spotlight recently because the issue of whether to approve the pending Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement has featured prominently in the campaign speeches and policy platforms of both major Presidential candidates. These conversations occur through both formal and informal channels.
It is important to note that all U.S. farm groups do not have the same position toward trade policy and the value of FTA’s, and that some groups’ attitudes on these matters have evolved over time. For example, the United States was a net importer of pork products until 1995 and remains a net importer of beef in some years, so associations representing hog and cattle producers supported the Meat Import Law until it had to be repealed after the Uruguay Round was completed. Today, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is consistently one of the strongest advocates of FTA’s among farm groups. Most farm groups will not take a formal position on a given agreement until they have an opportunity to see the final text of the agreement and can evaluate whether or not its provisions adequately address their perceived interests. With respect to the TPP, nearly all U.S. farm groups have expressed public support for the agreement, except for the National Farmers Union, which opposes TPP and most FTA’s in general, and the USA Rice Federation, which has not yet taken a public position.
Congressional oversight of U.S. participation in FTA’s formally falls under two committees, the Ways and Means Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Finance Committee of the U.S. Senate, largely because of the tradition that federal revenues might fall as a result of changes in the U.S. tariff system. However, the leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have always sought to inform negotiators of their views and concerns on key issues that arise in the agricultural portions of those agreements, typically the chapters that deal with market access and SPS issues. Those two committees largely attract members from states or districts where agriculture is a key economic driver, and those representatives usually consult major farm groups or farmer constituents from their states before they weigh in on FTA negotiations. In addition, there are seven Senators who currently serve as members of both the Agriculture and Finance Committees, which gives them added influence over the process.
Beyond the Congressional influence that many U.S. farm groups can help bring to bear on trade negotiators, there is also a formal advisory system that gives representatives of farm and commodity groups direct access to U.S. trade negotiators. This system was included in the legislation which established the parameters under which the U.S. government could engage with other governments in trade negotiations, called the Trade Act of 1974. The Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee (APAC) is one of six overarching groups which provide input and feedback on negotiating positions for six key sectors of the U.S. economy. There are an additional six advisory committees which look at policies which affect specific subsectors of agriculture, such as fruits and vegetables and animals and animal products, collectively called the Agricultural Trade Advisory Committees (ATAC’s). Those seeking to serve on any of these seven committees are nominated by stakeholder groups and members are selected by officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. APAC and ATAC members serve four-year terms, although many serve multiple terms, and often travel to overseas locations where negotiations are occurring to observe the process and consult with U.S. trade negotiators on a real-time basis.
In addition to the formal channels described above, U.S. farm groups also make their views known through informal outlets. They frequently send public letters laying out their positions to the President and other top officials involved in trade policy. Depending on the issues covered, some letters are sent by individual organizations, while others reflect broad, collective interests and include the signatures of multiple farm groups. These groups also engage through the mass media, typically offering encouragement or seeking to bolster resolve throughout the period during which the U.S. government is negotiating with other countries on FTA’s. In the aftermath, they try to muster support for Congressional approval of the completed FTA by publicly extolling the benefits that could be generated by the agreement.