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The likely new chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture is Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., a sharp critic of President Donald Trump's trade war with China and someone who could become a political force to be reckoned with on farm policy in the new Congress.
Democrats on Tuesday picked up more than the 23 seats needed to wrest back control of the lower chamber.
Peterson, who won re-election Tuesday to a 15th term in Minnesota's 7th Congressional District, represents a largely rural district in western Minnesota known for soybeans, wheat, corn and sugar beets along with pork, dairy and turkey production. The 74-year-old senior representative from Minnesota beat Republican challenger Dave Hughes, an Air Force veteran.
"The tariff war is taking a toll on Minnesota manufacturers and farmers, and that puts our economy at risk," Peterson tweeted a day before Election Day. "I'm working to help businesses in the 7th to adjust and recover in the face of adversity abroad."
A member of the House Committee on Agriculture since entering Congress in 1991, Peterson serves as the panel's ranking member in the current 115th Congress and previously held the chairmanship. The current chairman of the agriculture panel is Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas.
In remarks to reporters Wednesday, Peterson said he remains skeptical about Trump's trade war, which has resulted in retaliatory tariffs against U.S. farmers. Assuming he gets the chairmanship of the House Committee on Agriculture, Peterson will have sway over large federal programs involving the farm sector as well as hold hearings and help shape policies involving agricultural trade, nutrition programs such as food stamps, rural development and conservation, as well as the large farm bill.
"The president is doing his thing," said Peterson. "I don't agree with what he's doing as it relates to agriculture."
That said, Peterson agrees that there are some "problems with China" as it relates to fair trade. "But I think we're being held hostage by something I'm not sure is going to be resolved in our favor in the end anyway. I don't see any scenario where agriculture is going to be better off than we were before all this started with China."
In the case of China, American soybeans have been a major target of Beijing's tariffs. About 60 percent of the soybeans grown in Minnesota are exported, and about half of them in recent years have gone to customers in China.
Minnesota's agriculture industry also relies heavily on exports to Canada and Mexico. Together, the two U.S. allies account for nearly half of Minnesota's agricultural exports, according to Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation.
Despite the new trade deal announced with Canada and Mexico, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the two allies continue to have retaliatory tariffs on products in response to Trump's duties on imported aluminum and steel. Peterson said Wednesday he planned to support the replacement deal for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Ag exports are really important economic drivers," said Paap. "Our biggest concern in agriculture is that once you lose the market, it's really hard to get it back. And we don't want to lose those markets, those relationships."
The Trump administration has offered about $6 billion in initial relief to U.S. farmers affected by retaliatory tariffs to help them weather the trade war.
"The farm bureau certainly prefers trade over aid," said Paap, who grows soybeans and corn in southern Minnesota.
Paap also said it was welcome news for Minnesota's agribusiness that Peterson would chair the agriculture panel in the House.
"That is extremely important and very valuable," the farm official said. "We saw Mr. Peterson as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee prior, so he's not an unknown commodity."
Paap continued, "We've seen over the years, whether you're chairman or ranking member, a lot of agriculture things coming out of the ag committee are written in a bipartisan manner."
At the same time, Peterson also is one of four top leaders on the joint House-Senate conference committee tasked with negotiating differences over the farm bill. The Senate's $428 billion farm bill passed in late June, but unlike the GOP-led House version, it didn't include stricter working requirements for food stamps that the Democrats have opposed.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the stricter work requirement provisions could see about 1.2 million low-income Americans lose their benefits.
There also are other sticking points in reaching an agreement on the new farm bill, including differences over reductions to conservation programs and farmer payment limits in the Senate version that were introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, but are at odds with the House version.
Peterson told reporters Wednesday that the farm bill remains his "No. 1 goal" and added that the joint conference committee is "relatively close. I think we can work this out and get this done before this Congress adjourns."
If the conference committee fails to resolve farm bill differences in the lame-duck session, however, a new Congress could take up the legislation next year when Democrats have control of the House. The farm bill is usually renewed every five years, and the lion's share of the bill's funding is devoted to programs such as food stamps.