By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
INDIANAPOLIS (DTN) -- USDA Deputy Secretary Steve Censky said Thursday it would be "very unfortunate" for agriculture if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delays a vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement until 2020.
Pelosi, D-Calif., was quoted by reporters on Thursday adding some uncertainty to the possibility of a vote on USMCA before the end of 2019. Pelosi was scheduled to meet with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in her office on Thursday to continue negotiations on some sticking points in the trade deal for Democrats.
"I'm not even sure if we came to an agreement today that it would be enough time to finish," The Hill and other publications quoted Pelosi saying.
SUPPORTED BY AG GROUPS
To declare USMCA is a priority for agricultural groups is almost an understatement. Agriculture as an industry has been among the biggest advocates for USMCA passage, as 950 groups and businesses signed a letter in May calling on Congress to ratify the deal. After Congress returned from summer recess, farm lobbies and others held a rally to champion the trade deal.
The group Farmers for Free Trade just Thursday emailed a list of editorials from newspapers around the country endorsing USMCA and calling on Congress to pass the deal.
Further delays of the trade deal could also endanger some moderate House Democrats such as freshmen from Midwest states on the House Agriculture Committee. Reps. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, and Angie Craig, D-Minn., have been among those calling for the House to take up the trade pact.
Earlier this week, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, met with House Democrats, pushing them to continue delaying a vote until further labor and enforcement provisions are made. Axne said afterward she told Trumka that, while she supported the enforcement of labor regulations, farmers and manufacturers in her district were hurting due to the trade war and tariffs, which a new trade agreement would alleviate.
"The longer we wait, [the more] it increases the pain the folks in Iowa like our farmers are getting right now," she said.
President Donald Trump, in his defense against impeachment, has also frequently brought up that Pelosi has not made enough effort to pass USMCA.
MEXICO APPROVED DEAL
USMCA was signed last Nov. 30 by President Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Canada. Mexico's legislature has approved the trade deal, but Canada's parliament is waiting until the U.S. Congress also moves to pass the trade deal.
Censky spoke to reporters Thursday after a speech during the Sustainable Agriculture Summit in downtown Indianapolis. DTN asked Censky about delaying a vote on USMCA.
"That would be very unfortunate because we have been waiting a long time for this," Censky said. "Farmers are looking for trade certainty, the American people are looking for trade certainty, and I think it just postpones locking in an improved trade agreement."
Censky added that the trade agreement locks in the current duty-free access most U.S. agricultural products have going into Mexico. The deal also makes some improvements with biotechnology agreements and with access to Canada, Censky pointed out.
"It cracks open additional market access into Canada for our dairy, our wheat, our poultry and egg producers, and it updates the provisions of NAFTA. It's good for American workers, so if it's postponed, that would be very disappointing and I hope that doesn't happen because we need to get it done."
Agricultural groups over the summer pointed out food and agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico grew from $9 billion in 1993 to nearly $40 billion in 2018 under NAFTA. The USMCA is expected to boost U.S. agricultural exports by an additional $2.2 billion per year.
Censky also said Thursday that USDA expects to open enrollment for the Conservation Reserve Program in early December. The rule for CRP signup and changes in the program are under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget. USDA expects OMB to release the rule soon, though Censky said he doesn't want to say when that could happen.
Congress raised the cap for CRP to 27 million acres in the 2018 farm bill. Current USDA enrollment reports show 22.35 million acres in the program. Censky said USDA expects "really good and robust participation" to increase acres.
"We think it's going to be one of the biggest CRP signups we've had for a lot of years," Censky said.
Under any sign-up, USDA also is expected to reduce CRP rental rates, which were capped at 85% of the county's average rental rate for general sign-up.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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