While foreign policy issues in recent weeks have centered strictly on the war effort, officials at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association hope lawmakers won't neglect another facet of foreign policy: trade.
Lynn Cornwell, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the organization would actively lobby Congress seeking trade promotion authority for President Bush.
"We think it's a tool we desperately need," Cornwell said. "It's kind of like arming your leadership with the ability to negotiate some trade."
Trade promotion authority would allow the president to negotiate deals with foreign countries and submit the treaty to Congress for a straight, up-or-down vote without amendment. Presidents have traditionally had that authority but it was allowed to lapse during the Clinton administration.
Without trade promotion authority "there's just a lot of things that we get shut out of that if we were able to negotiate we could do it," Cornwell said.
For example, he noted that the current trade system allows countries such as Australia to easily undercut the United States and sell beef to countries like Taiwan.
"They used our trading level floor price and our tariff quota rates with Taiwan as a benchmark, and then they just waited for us to peg our price and then they went in and undercut our price," Cornwell said.
While those trade battles may occur thousands of miles away, the cost to ranchers in Oklahomans is steep. Cornwell noted that 17 percent of the U.S. beef sold last year (by value) was exported to other countries. If new markets are opened through presidential trade promotion authority, he said American beef producers could see increases of $8 to $10 per hundred weight for a 500-pound steer.
"So far we've been locked out of that," he said.
In addition to Taiwan, the European Union ("We think there's some opportunity there -- big time.") and the Pacific Rim countries are potential markets that could quickly be tapped if the president has trade promotion authority, Cornwell said.
Mexico, which is currently the second-largest importer of American beef, could also be a major market. In 1975, there were 57 million natives in Mexico; today, there are 102 million and the standard of living in the country is growing and resistance to trade is declining thanks to the new presidential administration in the country.
Cornwell said the National Cattlemen's Beef Association also supports Bush's proposal to allow many of the estimated 3.5 million Mexicans in the United States to become legal citizens.
"We think that's good. We in agriculture think it's about time," Cornwell said. "Agriculture in this country would shut down without that work force. They're good people and they work hard, they eat beef, they go to church and they're good citizens. And we just think it's overdue."
Even as the organization seeks increased trade, it will also seek the creation of a "country of origin" labeling law for food products sold in the United States.
Cornwell predicted that the issue would come to a vote and pass Congress this year. The House has already passed (by 292-121) a provision requiring mandatory country-of-origin labeling on fruits and vegetables, and a bill stands ready in the Senate requiring mandatory labeling on all food products.
Cornwell said much of the debate would center on enforcement provisions and their cost, as well as the definition of "American" products. The definition supported by the cattlemen's association would not allow animals brought into this country for immediate slaughter to be given a U.S. label. However, the association supports allowing USDA quality grading to be applied to foreign- raised beef products.
On the domestic front, the cattlemen's association has launched a campaign supporting revision of the federal Endangered Species Act to "put some science back" into the legislation, Cornwell said. …