The Senate Agriculture Committee visits Manhattan, Kan., Thursday to begin work on the next farm bill. The committee, chaired by Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, will hear testimony about the sad state of the farm economy and what Washington might do to help.
He should call President Donald Trump as a witness.
Not because the president understands food and nutrition policy. It’s possible Trump, like his predecessors, lacks basic knowledge of how crop insurance works or why food stamps are part of the farm bill. That’s why presidents hire agriculture secretaries.
But Trump made international trade — the buying and selling of goods to and from foreign countries — a centerpiece of his campaign. And he needs to understand that robust, free foreign trade is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to lift the economy in farm states like Kansas.
As you may know, free trade isn’t the president’s strongest suit.
During the campaign, he promised to protect American manufacturing jobs by insisting on punitive tariffs for goods imported from Mexico and other countries. He has already abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and he wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump has paid lip service to a 20 percent border tax suggested by Republicans.
Any one of these steps would anger foreign trading partners. Pursuing all of them will almost certainly touch off a trade war, in which foreign countries impose retaliatory tariffs on American products like grain and beef.
That would cause sales of those products to plummet. Kansas and Missouri farmers, already reeling from dropping prices, would face disaster.
In 2014, Kansas farmers sold $4.7 billion in grains and animal products overseas, the eighth highest export volume in the United States. Missouri wasn’t far behind, selling $4.3 billion in corn, soybeans, even cotton to overseas buyers.
All of those sales would be threatened by an all-out international trade war.
Protectionism sounds good in manufacturing states like Michigan and Ohio — even in urban areas of Missouri, where labor unions deeply resent what they see as unfair foreign competition. It isn’t an exaggeration to say Trump owes his election to workers attracted by his promises to protect American jobs.
But rural interests also voted for Trump, and they deserve a seat at the table. Once seated, they can remind the president that protectionism works in both directions and that an escalating trade war eventually hurts everyone (see, for example, the Great Depression.)
The White House could soften the blow by calling for increased crop insurance and subsidized loans for farmers. That might increase federal spending, though, and make it harder to increase military strength, maintain a social safety net and cut taxes without further exploding the national debt.
Roberts and his colleagues must make that clear in Manhattan Thursday. The key to rescuing the rural economy is strengthening agriculture, a task that would be made much more difficult by a dangerous and counterproductive trade war.