Aides to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton said last week the presidential candidates both oppose splitting the farm bill and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, while disagreeing on the future of the estate tax and the "Waters of the United States" rule.
Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy agriculture secretary, spoke on behalf of Clinton. Iowan Sam Clovis, national chief policy adviser to the Trump campaign and a member of his agricultural advisory board, appeared for Trump.
They discussed their candidates' views on a host of agricultural and rural issues at a two-hour forum less than three weeks before the election.
Merrigan and Clovis agreed food stamps should remain part of the farm bill because Congress is unlikely to get enough support to pass a bill without it. Food assistance makes up about 80 percent of the $500 billion farm bill and is popular with lawmakers in states without a large agricultural industry.
"I don't think a farm bill moves without that package," Merrigan said.
Clovis noted Trump's support is "very significant and very important ... because it doesn't follow the Republican orthodoxy."
The campaigns underscored their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries; the deal needs congressional approval. Each side expressed concern the pact would eliminate U.S. jobs.
Clovis said Trump's "highest priority" would be fundamental tax reform, including an end to the estate tax.
"It doesn't take much property to put yourself over the threshold so you're paying an incredible penalty if you have an untimely death and you have to divest that property," Clovis said.
Merrigan said the tax only affects very large farms, "not mom and dad who want to transfer the farm upon their death to the kids."
Waters of the U.S. rule
Farm and livestock groups have warned the Obama administration regulation to curb pollution in small waterways and wetlands could infringe on their land rights and increase costs. Clovis called the rule "the poster child of government overreach."
Merrigan said normal farming is mostly exempt. "We need to do a better job working with farmers and ranchers on implementation and alleviating the anxiety that might be covered by waters of the U.S.," she said. "The reality is, it's been blown out of proportion."
Both campaigns acknowledged agriculture's dependence on immigrants. Clovis underscored the need to secure the border but expressed a willingness to work with the agriculture industry "to make sure we have a system that works where we can bring in those workers and make them legal."
Merrigan said Clinton would introduce comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship within her first 100 days as president. "You tell me what works best for American agriculture: that we're-going-to-build-a-wall-and-Mexico-is-going-to-pay-for-it approach, or honest, comprehensive immigration reform?"
Clovis said the Trump campaign would support a commission to review regulatory issues to make sure departments aren't overlapping in their oversight and that laws don't conflict. Congress would then be asked to vote in areas where there are problems. Small farmers and business owners "don't have the wherewithal to fight, combat and comply with all of these different notions," he said. "We think there has to be a review of all of these aspects." But Merrigan said regulations aren't necessarily bad, noting that they have been helpful in biotechnology and food safety. "They level the playing field. They give certainty to business. They give certainty to our farmers and ranchers."