U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson on Friday urged Congress to ratify the Trump administration’s update to the North American Free Trade Agreement to help ailing Wisconsin farmers, while contradicting the president’s assessment that farmers are rebounding from the effects of his trade war.
Talking to reporters at the same event, the Oshkosh Republican also called Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony related to his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election “sad” and referenced the former FBI director’s age.
His comments, at a roundtable discussion in DeForest with leaders in agriculture, come as farmers face some of the toughest economic conditions in decades, made worse by an ongoing trade war with China and other countries.
“When you can’t feel like you’re making progress at least at some point, or you’re actually going backwards, it really gets hard to get up in the morning,” said Chris Pollack, a fifth-generation dairy farmer who lives near Ripon.
Pollack said dairy farmers for the past four or five years have dealt with depressed milk prices and were starting to see relief when President Donald Trump entered the U.S. into a global trade war by imposing tariffs on aluminum and steel.
Those tariffs prompted retaliatory tariffs affecting Wisconsin’s agricultural industry, such as a 25% tariff Mexico placed on American cheese. Ninety percent of Wisconsin’s milk is made into cheese.
Trump has said the tariffs would lead to increased access to markets, making the short-term pain felt by farmers worth it in the long run.
At a Milwaukee event earlier this month, Trump touted the pending trade deal and said farmers are “over the hump,” but Johnson on Friday disagreed.
“No, they’re suffering,” Johnson said. “The trade wars are not helping that whatsoever.”
Johnson added that he’s been surprised by the level of support for Trump’s goal with the tariffs of combating trade abuses by countries such as China. Grievances include the forced transfer of intellectual property and not following standards for trade set by the World Trade Organization.
Pollack said he understands the justification for Trump’s tariffs, but said the short-term pain has been challenging.
“I certainly wish that there was another way that they could have tried to accomplish that sort of thing,” he said. “This has been a pretty hard pill to swallow.”
Hope for stability
Farmers at the roundtable discussion said ratification of the new trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico could help bring stability to milk markets by giving American dairy farmers greater access to the Mexican and Canadian dairy markets.
“I’m not saying in the short term it’s going to make us whole again, but at least it gives us … something that we can count on going forward to help stabilize markets that have been so stretched,” Pollack said.
The number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has decreased by 49% over the past 15 years as farmers face increasingly difficult conditions.
Johnson said he wants the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) concluded as quickly as possible, and said Democratic members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation should persuade House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the deal to a vote.
Farmers are getting impatient.
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‘It needs to happen now’
“This trade deal needs to happen not in six months, it needs to happen now, it needed to happen six months ago,” said Janet Clark, of Vision Aire Farms in Fond du Lac County.
The Legislatures of the U.S., Mexico and Canada must sign off on the USMCA to ratify it, and so far, only Mexico’s has done so.
Pelosi has sought changes to the agreement to increase enforcement of new labor provisions for Mexico and address concerns about how the agreement would affect the environment and drug prices.
The Trump administration hopes Congress will ratify the agreement as soon as September.
Johnson said ratifying the agreement would represent a “really big step forward” for farmers.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, emphasized the White House still needs to send Congress the agreement, and that the president’s trade wars have hurt farmers.
“We need to make sure final legislation expands markets for Wisconsin cheese exports in Mexico and addresses Canada’s unfair trade barriers for Wisconsin dairy,” Baldwin said. “I also want to make sure final legislation stops the outsourcing of Wisconsin manufacturing jobs to other countries.”
Mueller, other issues
Johnson had harsh words for Mueller, who provided long-awaited testimony this week on the report he issued earlier this year on Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether Trump obstructed that investigation.
“It was sad,” Johnson said. “Age takes a toll on all of us. It actually raised more questions to me than anything Robert Mueller actually answered.”
Mueller, 74, was criticized in media reports for at times appearing stilted and halting in his answers to the House Judiciary Committee.
During his testimony Mueller said Russian interference in American elections is still a threat, but Johnson said he lacked interest in bringing new legislation to deal with the threat, arguing that the Department of Homeland Security has taken significant steps to combat the issue. He also said he wants to avoid federalizing the American system for conducting elections, which is mostly left up to the states.
“It’s actually one of the things that make our elections more secure,” Johnson said.
But Baldwin in a statement knocked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, for blocking votes on legislation that would address the issue.
One bill would have required the use of paper ballots and provided funding for the Election Assistance Commission.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission has said the state’s elections systems are secure and that it has found no evidence they have ever been compromised.
In Wisconsin, 85% of ballots are cast on optical-scan paper ballots, 5% on hand-count paper ballots, and 10% are cast on touch-screen voting equipment that has a paper audit trail.
Johnson declined to comment on a proposed Trump administration rule aimed at closing a “loophole” in the food stamp program that could throw more than 25,000 households in Wisconsin off the rolls.