Rep. Kevin McCarthy said Friday there are enough votes in Congress to approve the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, asserting the next step is for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call a vote on the trade deal also known as the "New NAFTA."
The Bakersfield Republican, speaking with reporters after a closed-door meeting downtown with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Stephen Censky and members of the local ag industry, said the accord would be a "tremendous boon" for the local community.
"September will really be the time," he said, for Congress to ratify the deal, which was signed Nov. 30 by President Donald Trump, former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Negotiated in 2017 and 2018, the USMCA updates the North American Free Trade Agreement in many ways, bolstering environmental and labor regulations while addressing intellectual property protections and creating incentives for U.S. automobile manufacturing.
Of particular interest to Central Valley farmers is the accord's proposal to lift restrictions on U.S. dairy exports to Canada, as well as measures for boosting sanitary and phytosanitary measures that ensure food safety.
Farmers and ag industry representatives who attended McCarthy's and Censky's closed-door meeting said a variety of topics of deep concern to local growers were covered, from the H-2A temporary visa program for foreign ag workers to water infrastructure to the U.S.-Chinese trade war that has limited the overseas market for almonds and other key Central Valley crops.
A former president of the California Citrus Mutual trade group, Joel Nelson, characterized the gathering as "very positive" and a good exchange of ideas, especially on the Trump administration's efforts to cushion the trade war's impacts on U.S. agriculture.
Nelson said the administration's "hurry-up" approach to ag subsidies protecting farmers from steep Chinese tariffs on U.S. food exports demonstrated a lack of familiarity with California specialty crops — tree nuts, stone fruit and other non-staple commodities.
"We need a little bit more flexibility and creativity," he said before declining to elaborate.
Censky said after the meeting he hopes an agreement will soon be reached with China such that reforming the subsidies won't be necessary. But if a third round of federal supports does become necessary, he said, the administration will tailor its purchases of U.S. ag products for domestic food banks and that more growers and shippers will be brought into the program.
Buttonwillow vegetable and cotton farmer Matt Thomson said farmers want to see a quick resolution to the trade war but that they understand the need to be strong and not give in to China, which is said is not the only challenge to be overcome in the administration's fight for new trade terms.
"Most farmers, we'd rather have a market where we didn't need any assistance from the government," he said.
Thomson said there was also discussion of water infrastructure, which has been a priority for the administration as it works to bring down barriers to projects that store and convey irrigation water.
Shafter-area tree-nut farmer Larry Starrh, who also was present for Friday's meeting, said the administration has been "great on water especially" as it moves to pull back endangered-species protections seen as inhibiting major water-infrastructure projects.
McCarthy said water is always a big challenge for California farming and that people in attendance Friday had spoken favorably about the administration's approach to water infrastructure.
Another topic discussed Friday, he said, was farm labor. Responding to a question from the news media about his past calls for fixing the "broken" immigration system, McCarthy said the situation along the border highlights the need to reform the U.S. asylum system.
While the United States is a nation of immigrants, he said, it is also a nation built on the rule of law. He blamed Democrats in Washington for failing to support an immigration measure brought before Congress last year.
McCarthy and Censky both mentioned a proposal by the Trump administration to streamline the federal H-2A temporary visa program for foreign ag workers.
The program grants farmworkers from Mexico and other countries the right to stay and work in the United States — usually at wages below what domestic laborers earn, according to the Center for Immigration Studies — for up to three consecutive years. After that time they must return to their home countries for at least three months before applying for another visa.
McCarthy said the H-2A program needs to be fixed but was not more specific.
Censky called the visa program cumbersome, bureaucratic and inefficient. He said the administration wants to make it easier to use.
One idea he floated would make the U.S. Department of Agriculture a "front door" for processing visas and create a "TurboTax environment" that could speed processing of visa applications.
The administration wants to have the Department of Homeland Security review applications through the USDA to make security interviews more efficient, the deputy secretary said.