KENNWICK, Wash. — Political gridlock is likely to continue this year in Congress, and that’s not all bad, a lobbyist for the potato industry says.
“This is actually very helpful in terms of stopping things that we don’t want to have happen, but it’s challenging for dealing with big things,” said Kam Quarles, vice president of public policy for the National Potato Council.
“Must-pass” bills” this year include government funding, raising the federal debt limit in March and a new farm bill. The current farm bill is set to expire in September.
Quarles addressed several topics during the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference in Kennewick, Wash.
On trade, the council believes improvements can be made to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, but ending the agreement would be a major mistake, Quarles said. The immediate tariff increases that would occur would be “very destructive,” he said.
The council is urging the Trump administration to amend the agreement, but not to end it.
On electronic logging devices for truckers required by the U.S. Department of Transportation, an agriculture exemption for 150 miles from the “source” of a commodity is unclear, Quarles said. The devices on the market aren’t capable of shutting themselves off or being shut off under the exemption, and the department is struggling to define what the source of an agricultural commodity is, Quarles said.
“If you’re not sure where that ag exemption begins and the technology that is supposed to be implementing this rule can’t actually do it, we think it’s reasonable you take a little bit more time (to) more fully study what’s going on in order to get your hands around it.”
The council and potato industry are requesting a one-year delay on implementation, Quarles said.
On immigration, a Senate-proposed agricultural exemption for mandatory electronic verification would result in “shooting fish in a barrel,” Quarles said.
“If you’re going to say the one industry in the U.S. that doesn’t have to verify their workforce is agriculture, where do you think all the ICE agents are going to spend 100 percent of their time?” he asked. “Go to the place where nobody’s verified. This is pretty destructive.”
A House-proposed cap on agricultural guestworkers is roughly 30 percent of the overall need in the U.S., Quarles said.
“What happens when the cap is reached? What time of year is the cap reached? Is it a time when the potato industry has a particularly significant demand for labor or does that fall on other folks?” he asked.
The proposal would move responsibility for the program from the Department of Labor to USDA, which is a positive step, Quarles said.
“(USDA) obviously has an interest in making sure the agriculture industry is prosperous, the Department of Labor probably less so,” he said.