THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT IN PHOTO OPPORTUNITY WITH CONGRESSIONAL LEADERS The Oval Office
2:45 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: After the clicking stops, here's what I want to do. (Laughter.) As you can all see, I'm here with Senator Daschle, Senator Harkin, Senator Conrad, Senator Dorgan and Secretary Glickman, Deputy Secretary Rominger; and these young people here are national officers of the FFA.
In a few moments I'm going to do a national radio press conference with agricultural reporters from agricultural radio networks around the country. I've got a brief statement here that I would like to read and then I'd like to give the senators a chance to make whatever comments they would like to make. And then I will do what I said I'd do in the press room a while ago -- I'll let you all ask some questions, if you have questions on other subjects -- and then we'll go do the ag press conference.
We're here because all of us are profoundly concerned about the communities that are suffering from both low prices and all kinds of natural disasters around the country. In Texas, about three-quarters of the cotton crop has been lost. Senator Dorgan said the other day that North Dakota retired auctioneers are being pressed into duty to handle all the families that are being forced to sell their farms.
For five-and-a-half years we've worked hard to help America's farm families with disaster assistance to ranchers who've lost livestock, surplus commodity purchases for school lunches, diversifying the sources of enterprise and income in rural America. We've increased our use of export credits by a third in the last year alone.
This year's farm crisis demands that we do more. On Saturday, I directed Secretary Glickman to buy more than 80 million bushels of wheat to help lift prices for American farmers and ease hunger in the developing world. Today I'm announcing that we are providing disaster assistance for farmers in Texas -- the entire state has been declared a disaster area -- to help those whose crops and livestock have been ravaged by the drought. I believe today is the 18th day in a row that it's above 100 degrees in Dallas, Texas. Next week I will send Secretary Glickman to Texas and Oklahoma to assess what other help is needed.
As we head into the conference I ask all of you young people who are here to go back home and help us to do whatever we can to pass the $500 million in emergency farmer and rancher assistance contained in the amendment sponsored by Senators Conrad and Dorgan and strongly supported by our ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator Harkin and our leader, Senator Daschle.
We also have to help to revive the rural economy with exports. We have to give the International Monetary Fund the resources it needs to strengthen the Asian economies. Let me tell you how big a deal this is. About 40 to 50 percent of all American grain production is exported; 40 percent of all the exports go to Asia. We have a 30 percent decline in farm exports to Asian countries -- excluding China and Japan -- they're down about 13 percent in Japan, they're down about 6 percent in China, 30 percent in the other countries this year because of the Asian financial crisis.
The International Monetary Fund is designed to reform those economies and boost them. They need money in order to buy our food. It is not a very complicated thing. But I have asked for this since January now. I was very disturbed to see in the morning press there's been another decision to delay a vote on this in the House of Representatives. I think it is a big mistake. I am doing what I can to continue to boost food exports. I don't believe that they should be subject to sanctions and our policies except under the most extreme circumstances. And I believe we have to do more.
Finally, I want to do whatever I can to strengthen the farm safety net. We should expand eligibility for direct and guaranteed loans, improve the crop insurance program which simply is not working for too many farmers, and extend marketing loans when the prices are low. We have to give farmers more flexibility in planning when to receive federal income support. They ought to be able to get these payments early. I proposed that last spring. I saw that there was some support for that in the House leadership last week and I'm grateful for that, but I'd like to pass that and get it out and do it soon.
All these things I think will help. But we have to understand we've got a price crisis in America today because of high worldwide crop production, the decline of the Asian economies and the decline in the currencies of so many countries relative to the dollar, which means they can't buy as much food -- that's why the IMF is important. We also have a disaster problem because of the drought and other significant natural problems. And no farmer should go broke because of an act of God. So that's our policy and we're going to try to implement it.
And I'd like to give the Senators a chance to make a few remarks and then I'll answer your other questions.
SENATOR DASCHLE: Well, Mr. President, on behalf of all of rural America we thank you for the extraordinary empathy and leadership that you've shown on this issue in the last couple of weeks. Just today we had another illustration of the seriousness of this situation with the report in income for farmers and ranchers declining now 35 percent in the first quarter. That is indicative of what we see every time we go to our rural states. Income is declining and the actions that you've outlined -- improving the safety net, dealing with exports and especially the IMF, and recognizing the importance of disaster assistance is absolutely critical.
And we need to get it done now. You mentioned the word "urgent" several times in your opening remarks. The urgent need to do it now is critical. We have the future of agriculture with us today. These are the future leaders. These are the future farmers and business people in rural America. We want them back 25 years from now as the best producers America can provide. And the only way that's going to happen is if we follow your leadership and make sure that these agricultural provisions and policies are implemented.
THE PRESIDENT: Senator Harkin.
SENATOR HARKIN: Well, again, Mr. President, thank you very much. I think it's very clear that President Clinton really is taking this very seriously, what's happening in rural America and what's happening to agriculture. And he's taking very forceful actions to try to get more of a safety net under our agricultural system.
We hope, Mr. President, that we can get the IMF funding through. That would have the most immediate impact right now in terms of getting our grains overseas and helping our trade. That would be the most immediate.
Secondly, I'd just say the young people that are here, that I've often said that we're about to enter another golden age of agriculture. Just when we went from horses to mechanization, we went from open pollenization to hybrids, there's another golden age coming with biotechnology, with using agriculture materials for not only food but for fiber, for building materials, genetic engineering, using our crops and things to make oils and medicines.
I see this coming. I just hope there are some farmers out there to take advantage of it. And that's what we have got to be about: underpinning rural America so that we have farmers and small business people all over America to help us enter that new golden age of agriculture. And I am just proud that we have a President that understands that and is taking forceful action to make sure we get through this crisis.
THE PRESIDENT: The North Dakota Senators -- I think North Dakota, I should say for the benefit of the national press, I believe has had the largest drop in farm income in any state of the country by a good stretch.
SENATOR CONRAD: Well, Mr. President, we want to thank you. Thank you for your response. Thank you for listening. Thank you for wading in and supporting our emergency amendment at the day before the vote, because that made a big difference. It's hard to overstate the dimensions of the disaster in North Dakota.
As you stated, we suffered a 98 percent decline in farm income from '96 to '97. We're seeing record farm auctions. As I said before, the little house on the prairie is being auctioned off. We just see a disaster if more is not done. We need the short-term help, but we also need something done in the long-term.
Probably the biggest challenge that we face is that our chief competitors are spending ten times as much as we are to support their producers. The Europeans are spending $50 billion a year; we're spending $5 billion a year. It's pretty hard to win a fight when the other side is firing live ammunition and we're firing blanks.
So we desperately need your continued leadership to send the signal that if America is going to win this trade fight we're in, we can't engage in unilateral disarmament. So we very much appreciate all you've done and very much appreciate your active interest.
SENATOR DORGAN: Mr. President, the key to changing public policy and addressing critical issues is to get all the spotlight shining in the same spot at the same time. And I think your leadership and the leadership of Secretary Glickman is making that happen in agriculture.
In North Dakota we've been hit with three things: collapsed prices, the worst crop disease in a century and, of course, a collapsing Asian market. And it has been devastating, as Kent indicated, a 98 percent drop in net farm income in one year. I defy anybody to look in any group of Americans and ask yourself if they can withstand a 98 percent drop in income. This just can't handle it. And family farming is much more than dollars and cents.
I know that we've got people here that wear eye shades and sort of measure everything in nickels and dimes and dollars and cents and that's not what preserving family farming is about. It's a much, much more important contribution to American life. And I think that's the debate in this Congress -- what's the merit value of worth of family farming. And when things are in crisis, what do we do to respond to that crisis to say we want to save family farmers because they have worth and merit in our country's future.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me just make one more comment about this, and then I'll answer your questions.
When the Freedom to Farm bill was passed, those of us who came from farming areas knew that it had a lot of very good provisions. It got the government out of micro-managing farming; it gave farmers more freedom to make their own planting decision; it had terrific conservation provisions; it had good rural development provisions. But it did not have an adequate safety net -- we all knew it at the time. And there were those, and there still are some, who believe that we really don't need one.
But I just think that's wrong. To go back to what Senator Harkin said, I believe if you look at the trends in world population growth and agricultural production elsewhere, in most normal years for the next 30 years, American farmers should do better and better and better. This would be a very good time for a whole generation of our farmers. But the average farmer is about 59 years old in America today.
So what I'm worried about is that, you know, you get a bad year or two like this coming along without an adequate safety net in this bill, then you wind up changing the whole structure of agriculture in ways that I don't think are good for America.
So we're going to work on this. We're going to try to get it done. But I do say to the young people here, I agree with Senator Harkin, I think the future trends around the world look quite good for America's farmers if we can get through this rough spot.
Q Why can't you lawmakers convince your fellows on the Hill? I mean, what is the hold up?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, don't you think your bill will pass? I think it'll pass.
SENATOR DORGAN: It passed the Senate. We've got to get it through conference and I'll think we'll get it --
THE PRESIDENT: And the Senate passed the International Monetary Fund.
SENATOR HARKIN: Yes. And we've got the indemnity fund in there.
SENATOR CONRAD: We're about to --
THE PRESIDENT: You're about to -- but you're going to pass it.
Q What's the problem?
THE PRESIDENT: The problem is in the House and we just have to hope that they will follow the lead of the Senate here.
Q Mr. President, what impact do you see the missile test having on your efforts to try and warm relations with Iran?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we've been following this for some time. And we knew that Iran was attempting to develop this capability. It's just a test. But if they -- obviously if they were to develop an intermediate range missile it could change the regional stability dynamics in the Middle East. And that's why we've worked so hard with North Korea and with others to try to get them not to transfer missile and missile technology to Iran.
If we do continue to have an opening of relations because the new President seems more open to it, obviously this is one of the things I would raise with him. We've been very concerned about this. And we believe the that future of the Middle East would be better if they'd invest more money, all those countries, in something other than military technology.
So we're very, very concerned about it, but not surprised by it.
THE PRESIDENT: One at a time. Obviously, it is an obstacle. But I don't think it's an argument for closing off all avenues of opportunity. The country is in a dynamic state now. There's some dynamism there and there's some reason to believe that -- it seems to me that at least making it clear what our position is on that, on the Middle East peace process, on terrorism, support of terrorism, on all these issues with which we've had problems with Iran in the past, and still being glad that there's some movement toward greater popular government, more openness in the country argues for what we're doing -- a cautious, deliberate approach.
Q Mr. President, besides the IMF bill, high on the farm agenda is fast track legislation. Why not go along with Speaker Gingrich and schedule a vote -- a September vote on this?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I strongly support fast track, as you know. I was bitterly disappointed that we couldn't pass it earlier. And he and I both worked very hard to pass it. There is no evidence that one single vote has changed. If anything, there's some evidence that we'd have more trouble passing it.
So if we bring it up in a bill that also has the International Monetary Fund or the Africa Trade bill or the Caribbean Basin Initiative -- all of which I think are good for America -- the impact would be, in all probability, to kill them all and to make it even harder to pass fast track early next year. I still believe we'll pass fast track next year when we get beyond this election year. I think it is so evidently in the best interest of the country. That's the first answer.
The second point is, the International Monetary Fund funding will do much more good in the short-run because it puts money into the countries that want to buy our food today. Fast track gives the United States the power to open new markets in the future, to enter negotiations to open new markets in the future.
So it's not terribly significant whether we get the fast track legislation in August, let's say, or September, or January or February next year, or March -- because we still have to start the negotiations and open new markets. We're already going to negotiate in opening agricultural markets, for example, within the World Trade Organization to try to deal with the European subsidy issue that was mentioned earlier.
So I'm strongly for fast track. I think we will pass it next year. I have no evidence that a single vote has changed since it was not passed earlier, and I don't want to kill all the rest of that. We ought to pass the Africa Trade bill now, the modified Caribbean Basin bill now. But most important of all, dwarfing everything else, in the near-term for these farmers with their prices low is the International Monetary Fund funding, because that will float cash into these countries as a condition for reform and it will give the money to buy our food. That's more important.
Q Why have you thrown in the towel on the Middle East?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we haven't. I saw that story -- that's just not so.
Let me say first of all, if I thought the process were over, I would say it was over. We have continued intense negotiations to this day with both sides, based on the ideas we advanced earlier -- which, as you know, were accepted in principle by Mr. Arafat and not by Mr. Netanyahu, but a negotiation ensued.
Secretary Albright has worked very, very hard on this. We have made a not inconsiderable amount of progress. But differences remain. We haven't thrown in the towel because I think it's a lot better to get an agreement, to get them into final status talks than it is to give up and let this thing drift dangerously toward conflict and dissolution.
So if we come to a time when I think it's hopeless, I'll say it's hopeless and that ideas weren't accepted. But right now I'm not prepared to say that. I think there's still a chance we can get an agreement and we're going to keep working for it.
END 3:04 P.M. EDT