Senate Hearing on Expanding U.S. Agricultural Trade with Cuba

On April 21st the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a hearing, “Opportunities and Challenges for Agriculture Trade with Cuba.”[1]

 Chairman’s Opening Statement

Senator Pat Roberts
Senator Pat Roberts

The Committee Chair, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (Rep., KS), opened the hearing by stating, “At the beginning of this Congress, I was hopeful that trade would be one area where we could work across the aisle to find agreement. I am still hopeful that is the case. . . . International trade of American agriculture products is critical…critical to the nation’s economy and critical to our Kansas farmers and ranchers. I have long fought to eliminate barriers to trade, and I believe that we should continue to work towards new market access opportunities for our agriculture products.”

“The United States and Cuba have a long history full of contention and instability. There is no shortage of opinion from members of Congress about the relationship between our two countries, both present and future. Some are concerned about human rights, others about socioeconomic ideology. But those concerns are not what this committee will focus on this morning. Today we are here to discuss the role of agriculture – opportunities and challenges – in Cuba.”

“This is not an issue that we are going to be able to fix overnight. It will take efforts in addition to bills in Congress to truly normalize trade with Cuba. The decisions that are made regarding increased trade with Cuba must be made carefully.”

“Four months ago the President announced a major shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba. It is my hope that in the future, the President will work with Congress to determine the best path forward. Foreign policy does not happen in a vacuum. We have to take a realistic approach and work out a step-by-step plan towards lifting the embargo. This is a goal that should include Congress.”

“Today we will hear from an impressive panel of experts, from the regulators responsible for writing our policies toward Cuba, to the producers who seek to grow the market for their products. I understand that, like myself, many of our witnesses here have traveled to Cuba to see first-hand what challenges and opportunities exist.”

“Agriculture has long been used as a tool – not a weapon – for peace and stability. It is my hope that Cuba will embrace the practices of free trade, enterprise and commerce, so that both countries will gain from increased relations.”

“Earlier this year, the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba was launched. They have shared a statement and additional information in support of our work today, [which was] entered into the record.”

Ranking Member’s Opening Statement

Senator Debbie Stabenow
Senator Debbie Stabenow

Senator Debbie Stabenow (Dem., MI), the Ranking Committee Member, said, “Improving trade with Cuba represents not only a great opportunity for America’s farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers, but a meaningful way to help rebuild trust between our nations.  After more than 50 years of stalemate, it’s time for a new policy on Cuba.”

“When I visited Cuba earlier this year – just days after President eased some trade restrictions – I saw firsthand the eagerness of Cubans who want to develop a more effective relationship with the [U.S.] But we can only get there if we begin to take meaningful steps to soften many of the barriers that exist between us.”

“And America’s farmers and ranchers are uniquely positioned to lead the way. Consider this – in 2014, the U.S. exported just over $290 million in agricultural goods to Cuba. That’s a good start, but for a country only 90 miles off our coast, we can do much more. Cuba’s own import agency estimates that it will receive approximately $2.2 billion (in U.S. dollars) worth of food and agricultural products this year alone.”

“That type of economic potential deserves a chance to succeed – and is one reason why many of the largest producer groups, trade associations, and companies from within agriculture have come together to push for increased engagement.”

“Many on this Committee have pushed for increased engagement and have taken the opportunity to visit Cuba in recent months. I’d like to recognize Senators Leahy and Klobuchar, as well as Senator Boozman and Heitkamp, for their bipartisan leadership on this issue.”

“The commitment to democratic ideas and human rights we share as Americans are best realized through engagement. Our bedrock principles accompany every product farmers and ranchers send to Cuba.”

“Last week’s action by the President [in rescinding the designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism”] is a step forward toward in normalizing our relationship and will test the commitment of the Cuban government to this process.”

“But even while we are making significant progress in rebuilding our relationship with Cuba – the policies governing trade between our countries are not yet designed to allow a steady flow of goods and services. We must find a path forward that allows U.S. financial institutions to safely and securely work with Cuban purchasers, including the extension of lines of credit. And we should work to authorize a greater range of goods, services, and supplies for export to Cuba. These measures not only make good business sense – they also will help build Cuba’s agricultural capacity and make the island a better trading partner in the long run.”

The Witnesses at the Hearing

 The witnesses at the hearing were the following: (1) The Honorable Michael T. Scuse, Under Secretary, Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture; (2) Mr. Matthew Borman, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Industry and Security, U.S. Department of Commerce; (3) Mr. John Smith, Acting Director, Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of the Treasury; (4) Mr. Michael V. Beall, President & CEO, National Cooperative Business Association; (5) Mr. Terry Harris, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Risk Management, Riceland Foods; (6) Mr. Ralph Kaehler, Farmer and Owner, K-LER Cattle Company, St. Charles , MN; (7) Mr. Doug Keesling, Fifth Generation Owner, Keesling Farms, Kansas Wheat, Chase , KS; and (8) Dr. C. Parr Rosson III, Professor & Department Head, Department of Agriculture Economics, Texas A&M University.

 Witness Ralph Kaehler

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator Amy Klobuchar

Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is a member of the Committee and the author of the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act (S.491) ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba, introduced Ralph Kaehler, whose family has been operating a livestock, row crop, and canning vegetable farm in Minnesota for nearly 130 years.

The Senator prefaced her introduction with this statement: “For too long, export and travel restrictions have prevented American farmers and ranchers from seeking opportunities in Cuba. That is why I have introduced bipartisan legislation to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, and this hearing allowed us to focus on how we can ensure that our farmers and ranchers benefit from normalized relations between our two countries.”

Mr. Kaehler testified that his farm was “an exhibitor in the First U.S./Cuba Food and Agriculture Exposition [in Havana] in 2002.” It “was the only one with live animals— affectionately known as the ‘Cuban Ark’ . . . to exhibit the diversity of U.S. livestock producers, and to introduce Cuba to the typical USA farm family.”

“Since then, the Kaehler Family has led over 10 trade delegations to Cuba. These missions have included producers from seven different states and a bipartisan mix of state lawmakers and officials. To date, some of the most successful exports to Cuba we have facilitated include shipments of livestock, dried distillers grains, powdered milk, animal milk replacer, and texturized calf feed.”

“Given the opportunity, U.S. farmers do well in Cuba. We have a significant advantage of shorter shipping over Europe, South America, Asia, and other major exporters. In addition, Cuba can take advantage of U.S. rail container service and sizing options, which also brings significant benefits to smaller privately owned businesses like ours. On top of all this, the U.S. produces a wide variety of affordable and safe food products that Cubans want to eat.”

“Unfortunately, some of the policies currently in place diminish the natural advantages American agriculture enjoys over its competitors. For instance, requirements for using third country banks for financing adds a lot of paperwork, time, and personalities to every transaction. Coupled with a restrictive cash‐in advance shipping policy . . . there is a very small margin for error before a shipper faces demurrage fees. As a family operation trying to build our business through exports, this self‐inflicted inefficiency can be tough to manage.”

Mr. Kaehler then made three specific recommendations to Congress. “First, . . . improve the trade financing rules for Cuba. . . . Second, . . . small firms like ours . . . need marketing support and assistance [from USDA] to help support our companies and figure out exactly what’s going on in markets abroad. . . . [Third,] I hope that Congress will expand the universe of people involved in U.S.‐Cuba trade by allowing a greater variety of goods and services to be traded.”

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[1] A quick examination of the official websites of the Committee’s 20 members reveals that seven have made statements favoring at least some aspects of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation (Boozman (Rep., AK), Brown (Dem., OH), Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Hoeven (Rep., ND), Klobuchar (Dem., MN), Leahy (Dem., VT) and Stabenow (Dem., MI)). Only two have negative statements about that reconciliation (Grassley (Rep., IA) and Perdue (Rep., GA)). The other eleven members‘ websites do not reveal any position on Cuba (Bennet (Dem., CO), Casey (Dem., PA), Cochran (Rep., MS), Donnelly (Dem., IN), Ernst (Rep., IA), Gillibrand (Dem., NY), McConnell (Rep., KY), Roberts (Rep., KS), Sasse (Rep., NE), Thune (Rep., SD) and Tillis (Rep., NC)). A more thorough examination of the records of the last 11 would probably uncover other indications of their positions on reconciliation with Cuba.

 

Only Three Days Until U.S. Senate Decides on Filibuster Reform

On January 3, 2013, the U.S. Senate of the 113th Congress convenes for the first time. One of the first items of business will be adoption or amendment of its rules.

Prior posts have examined the so-called “speaking filibuster” reform proposal led by Senator Jeff Merkley of Washington State. Although I think it does not go far enough to prevent the minority Republican Senators from stopping action on the nation’s urgent business, the only way it can be adopted on January 3rd is by a simple majority vote of at least 51 Senators under the so-called “constitutional option” or “nuclear option.”[1]

This prospect last Friday prompted an even weaker reform measure from four Republican Senators (John McCain, Lamar Alexander, Jon Kyl and John Barrasso) and four Democratic Senators (Carl Levin, Chuck Schumer, Mark Pryor and Ben Cardin).

This so-called bipartisan plan’s main changes would allow the majority leader to prevent filibusters when the Senate starts debating legislation; reduce the number of filibusters when the Senate is ready to start trying to write compromise legislation with the House; ensure that each party would be allowed two amendments to each bill; and reduce the number of federal judgeships subject to filibusters, although not for top judges. This group’s proposal is not a rules change, but rather a “standing order” that would expire next term. In addition, although the proposal does not require a speaking filibuster, a document explaining the proposal said the leaders of the two parties would require it.

In order for this weaker “bipartisan” proposal to block the one from Senator Merkley, the former’s supporters have to obtain the backing of only one more Democratic Senator (in addition to the four that are its original sponsors) that would deprive Senator Merkley’s proposal of the 51 votes its needs to pass under the “constitutional option.”

One of their most promising targets for this additional vote for the weaker proposal has been Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has been reluctant to change the rules on a party-line vote because of concerns about what will happen if and when Democrats are once again in the minority. On yesterday’s “Fox News Sunday,” however, Feinstein said she is hopeful the bipartisan plan will work out, but she would not rule out the Democrats’ going it alone.

According to the Huffington Post, there are two other Democratic Senators that are possible endorsers of the more limited reform. They are Senators Baucus of Montana and Donnelly of Indiana.

Even if the “bipartisan” proposal could deprive a simple majority for the Merkley proposal, it appears doubtful that the “bipartisan” version could obtain the 67 votes it would need for adoption under the current rules requiring a two-thirds (or 67) votes to amend the rules. However, if the Merkley proposal is defeated, its backers could reluctantly support the “bipartisan” version as “something is better than nothing.”

Keep in mind that a  broad coalition of nearly 50 progressive and labor organizations that have been actively lobbying for filibuster reform have rejected the bipartisan proposal, calling it a “recipe for continued Senate gridlock.”

Watch carefully the news from the Senate on January 3rd to learn what happens.


[1] This account is based upon the following: Assoc. Press, Bipartisan Senators Propose Curbing Filibusters,  N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2012); Weissman, Lawmakers Suggest New Rules To Speed Up Senate Business, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2012); Breaking the Filibuster, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Johnson & Grim, John McCain, Filibuster Reform Opponents Offering Counterproposal, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Kim & Everett, Bipartisan compromise pitched on filibuster, Politico (Dec. 28, 2012); McAuliff & Grim, Weakened Filibuster Reform Plan Revealed in Congress By John McCain, Carl Levin, Huffington Post (Dec. 28, 2012); Grim, Weak Filibuster Reform Offer Rejected By Progressive, Labor Coalition, Huffington Post (Dec. 29, 2012); Grim, Dianne Feinstein: Filibuster Reform Headed In Bipartisan Direction, But Nuclear Option Still On Table, Huffington Post (Dec. 30, 2012).

 

A Citizen’s Response to Washington Skirmishing Over Changing the U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

The U.S. Senate, in my opinion, is dysfunctional. One of the major sources of this failing is its filibuster rule that at least since 2009 has made it necessary to have the votes of at least 60 of the 100 Senators in order to do almost anything. I have railed against this rule and the way it has been used in many prior posts.

In anticipation of the new Congress’ convening in early January 2013, a group of Democratic Senators is developing support for modest changes to the filibuster rule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is supportive of this effort. The exact nature of the proposed changes apparently has not been set, but would at least include banning the filibuster on motions to take up proposed legislation for debate on the Senate floor and motions to take Senate-approved legislation to conference with the House of Representatives’ negotiators plus requiring those invoking the filibuster rule in other instances to stand up and speak on the Senate floor.[1]

Under the standing Senate rules, any amendment to the rules requires a two-thirds (67) votes. In the next session of Congress in January this would mean that all 53 Democratic Senators plus the 2 Independent  Senators plus 12 Republican Senators would have to vote in favor of any amendment.  All Washington observers agree that such a vote could not be attained for the proposed change to the filibuster rule.

Therefore, the supporters of changing the filibuster rule argue that at the start of a new session of Congress the Senate may change or adopt new rules by a simple majority vote (51).

This possibility has caused some of the Republican Senators to go apoplectic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said adopting this proposed rule change by a simple majority vote would be like throwing “a bomb into the Senate, have it blow up, and have everybody mad as heck.” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the incoming Republican whip, said, this would “shut down the Senate” and was an abuse of power. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma added that it would “destroy” the Senate and cause a severe backlash. Similar comments have been made by Republican Senators John Barrasso of Wyoming, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Such remarks, in my opinion, are absurd.

There are even some Democratic Senators who have expressed opposition or skepticism about changing the rules by a simple majority vote. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said he preferred “not to use a mechanism which I believe is dubious.” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said he did not like the simple majority-vote option.  Newly re-elected Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri stated that although she fully supported changing the rule, she was “not 100 percent in support” of the simple-majority-vote approach to doing do. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii merely said he was studying the proposal. In addition, Democratic Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly of Indiana said he was concerned about not protecting the things that make the Senate unique.

Much of this Democratic opposition or skepticism is the concern that someday they will be in the minority and wanting to block Republican proposals. However, this concern implicitly endorses eternal stalemate and the current Republican agenda of opposing most federal government action.

What then can U.S. citizens do to support changing the filibuster rule? I propose the following:

  1. Sign the electronic petition supporting the change.
  2. Write an email or letter to the Senators and Senators-Elect who are the initiators of the petition thanking them for doing so: Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Harkin, Amy Klobuchar, Jeanne Shaheen and Elizabeth Warren.
  3. Write to other Senators and Senators-Elect (Angus King, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy) who have publicly stated the need for changing the rule and urge them to join the petition campaign.
  4. Write to Majority Leader Harry Reid and urge him to press forward with changing the rule by a simple majority vote.
  5. Write to Democratic Senators (Carl Levin, Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill and Daniel Inouye) and Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly who have expressed opposition or skepticism about the simple-majority-vote approach and urge them to change their minds and support this approach for the filibuster rule.
  6. Write to the Senators from your State and urge them to support changing the filibuster rule by a simple majority vote.
  7. Write letters to the editors of newspapers and express your support for this effort.

Contact information, including email forms, for current Senators is available on the web. You will have to search for similar information for Senators-Elect.


[1] The recent developments discussed in this post are drawn from the following sources: Noah, Die, Filibuster, Die, New Republic (Nov. 16, 2012), http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/magazine/110215/die-filibuster-die;Weisman, The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/us/politics/new-senates-first-task-will-likely-be-trying-to-fix-itself.html?hp&_r=1&pagewanted=print&;Raju, GOP warns of shutdown over filibuster, Politico (Nov. 25, 2012), http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=ACE6831F-56E7-419A-8137-85D3D3E7BF5E; McAuliff, Mitch McConnell: Filibuster Fight Is An Unnecessary “Bomb” in the Senate, Huffington Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/mitch-mcconnell-filibuster_n_2200494.html?utm_hp_ref=politics; Bernstein, No, Republican obstruction isn’t because Harry Reid is mean to them,  Wash. Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/no-republican-obstruction-isnt-because-harry-reid-is-mean-to-them/2012/11/27/232d2276-38dc-11e2-9258-ac7c78d5c680_blog.html; Collins, Happy Talking, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/opinion/collins-Happy-Talking.html?pagewanted=print; Steinhauer, Resistance on Method for Curbing Filibuster, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/us/politics/method-for-curbing-filibuster-faces-resistance.html?pagewanted=print.