USDA official, lawmakers hear from Nebraskans as U.S.-China trade moves escalate

Nebraska farmers and ranchers offered an earful to a visiting Trump administration agriculture official Wednesday, the same day that China announced that it plans to impose tariffs on a host of items including soybeans, corn and beef.

Ted McKinney, undersecretary of agriculture for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, said he understands concerns about tariffs coming at a time when many farmers are struggling with low commodity prices. And he asked people for patience, saying U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are working to ensure that farmers will be protected in the escalating trade conflict with China.

“I’m not talking about 20 years of patience, I’m just saying see how this goes and see what we can do,” he said.

McKinney read a statement that President Donald Trump sent to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue the previous evening: “Sonny, you can assure your farmers out there that we’re not going to allow them to be the casualties if this trade dispute escalates. We’re going to take care of our American farmers.”

McKinney, who is from Indiana, was joined at various points on Wednesday by Rep. Don Bacon and Sens. Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer, all Republicans who said they appreciate the fellow Midwesterner’s visit but said they plan to hold the Trump administration to the promises it has made to farmers.

“We’ve got to deal with it head-on,” Bacon said. “Let’s get this settled, and let’s do it as quickly as possible.”

Agriculture representatives at a roundtable organized by Sasse at a Sarpy County farm politely but firmly expressed their concern and frustration about the consequences of a potential trade war.

“Agriculture is the whipping boy,” said Rod Gangwish of Shelton.

“Can you assure me there is a strategy?” asked Mark McHargue of Central City, who is on the board of the Nebraska Farm Bureau. “It feels pretty helter-skelter.”

McKinney said the Department of Agriculture’s strategy is to finish NAFTA negotiations and then to focus on new agreements with other countries.

“Time will tell,” he said.

The elected officials said they agree with Trump’s aims, which they described as preventing China’s theft of intellectual property. But they said agricultural producers shouldn’t get caught in the crossfire of a trade war.

“I’m very worried,” Fischer said. “Obviously agriculture is the economic engine for the state of Nebraska.”

She said she spoke Wednesday with Perdue and White House legislative affairs director Mark Short to emphasize the losses producers would face if the tariffs were finalized. She held her own roundtable with McKinney and agribusiness producers Wednesday in Omaha.

The concerns were echoed in Washington, where Republican leaders in Congress found themselves relatively powerless as the president — the head of their own party — pursues policies in direct conflict with the GOP’s long-standing free trade stance.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, could only watch helplessly on Wednesday as commodity futures sank on the news that China would impose retaliatory tariffs.

By midmorning, soybean prices were down 40 cents a bushel — a $1.72 billion loss.

“It’s very disconcerting,” said Roberts, who paused in the middle of an interview to check the prices again.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he’s anxious “about what appears to be a growing trend in the administration to levy tariffs.”

“This is a slippery slope, so my hope is that this will stop before it gets into a broader tit-for-tat that can’t be good for our country,” McConnell told business leaders and farmers in Shelbyville, Kentucky.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he warned Trump in February that tariffs on China would lead to retaliation that would hurt farmers. He said he “will be addressing these issues” in the Judiciary and Finance Committees.

“If the federal government takes action on trade that directly results in economic hardship for certain Americans, it has a responsibility to help those Americans and mitigate the damage it caused,” he said in a statement.

Grassley and Sasse have just returned from a trip with several other senators to China and South Korea, where Grassley said trade was a dominant issue.

There’s time for the two countries to resolve the dispute through negotiations in the coming weeks. The United States will not tax 1,300 Chinese imports — from hearing aids to flamethrowers — until it has collected public comments. It’s likely to hear more from American farmers and businesses that want to avoid a trade war at all costs.

China has not said when it would impose tariffs on the 106 targeted U.S. products.

At the roundtable, McKinney suggested that Trump might have an ace up his sleeve in the negotiations with China.

But Sasse pushed back.

“When you have trade relationships that come apart, new supply chains emerge. And when they emerge, they never go back. They’re always going to have a share of the revenue that used to be ours,” he said. “I don’t think many people really have a lot of confidence that there’s any sort of magic ace that sort of remakes the fundamental economic realities.”

Sasse suggested that the way to push back on China’s trade practices would be to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with 11 countries that Trump withdrew from. Sasse said that would allow the United States to lead other countries to also impose consequences on China.

Bacon said in an interview that he would like to see the president take other diplomatic steps before going for tariffs.

McKinney promised to relay the concerns he heard Wednesday to other administration officials.

“You bet I’m going to share it back, exactly as I heard it,” he said.

World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press.

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