Suzan DelBene

OTA 2015 Policy Conference - April 24, 2015

Suzan DelBene
April 24, 2015— Washington, D.C.
Organic Trade Association 2015 Policy Conference
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Good afternoon and thank you Steve for the introduction and being another great representative or Washington State, and the 1st district. I always say it’s the most beautiful district in the country, and occasionally rub people the wrong way and they want to argue with me that they are in the most beautiful district, but it is an incredibly beautiful district and one of the things that makes our region so beautiful is the incredible agricultural areas we have in western Washington.

We also have a growing organic industry. According to the most recent survey in 2011, certified organic farms in northwest Washington generated 36.6 million dollars in sales, and these numbers are rising dramatically. My district includes over 3,000 farms, many of which are organic. We have lots of dairies and berries, we always talk about my region as the dairies and berries region. But, as Steve said, many specialty crops and seed, potatoes, but especially berries. We’re also home to some great organic companies like Amy’s Kitchen and Natures Path.

Shortly after I took office, I asked my local farmers what they needed from their member of congress. They said, we need two things, we need a farm bill, and we need comprehensive immigration reform. They gave me six months to do it, one of the dairy farmers said, I’ll give you six months, and then after that you’re out there. So, we got a farm bill done and he’s been very kind to give me a little more time as we continue to work on immigration reform. As you know, last year we passed a 5-year farm bill, and I helped negotiate the final deal by serving on the conference committee with the senate. I think this farm bill was one of the best ones we ever had for specialty crops and organics.

The demand for certified organic goods has never been greater, which is why I think that a lot of the victories in the farm bill for organic agriculture will make a huge difference. But I want to highlight a few of those in particular. We maintained and achieved record funding levels for organic programs. There was increased funding for programs like the National Organic Program and the National Certification Cost-Share program. Both are crucial for maintaining the integrity of the organic seal, and helping the new farmer’s transition to growing organically.

In addition, critical research programs like the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension initiative, now we have mandatory funding now going forward. Which is very critical with research happening, even up in our region that Washington State University has been doing. This means if there’s another lapse in the farm bill, we have a continuing resolution, like it did a few years ago. These programs will continue and you won’t end up with dollars being cut off and these programs being left out in the cold. Because we know that research doesn’t just go on hold if we stop funding for research programs. Much of that research stops and it’s hard to get it started again.

There’s also meaningful move in this farm bill to help insure schools buy more organic produce from our local farmers. As you all know, there was a tough fight to create a new organic industry checkoff program, and in the end the farm bill helped pave the way.

So this congress, as Steve mentioned, I’m honored to serve as the ranking member of the house agriculture subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture and research. The key subcommittee on the ag committee. Again, someone will probably challenge me on that, probably fairly. Though, through this position I’m looking forward to continuing to support the organic agriculture industry which is so important to our local as well as our national communities and the economy.

Whether it’s ensuring the farm bill is implemented on time and is true to its intent, or that crucial funding for trade promotion programs like the market access program, are fully funded each year. There’s a lot of work that still has to be done.

In one of my recent district work periods where I had the chance to be back home, I spent time with local farmers and one of the things we talked about was how much the recent port stalemate on the West Coast was affecting them. Unlike other goods, when organic produce is sitting in your shipping containers for weeks, it’s impossible to get your products to market on time, and you just don’t have a product anymore.

So as the demand for organic food products continues to rise, lawmakers need to do a better job of supporting producers. You all know too well there’s a growing supply shortage, and it’s critical that we work together to support the great work that you’re doing, and make sure that we’re meeting the unique challenges of this nearly forty billion dollar organic industry. Another thing that, and Steve mentioned this, that I’m on two committees in congress. I’m on the Ag committee, and I’m on the judiciary committee, which is where we’re doing immigration reform.

So, as I said I talked to my farmers and said I needed to do two things, I’m kind of focused on making sure I was involved in those two things. So they said our current immigration system isn’t working, I’m sure all of you agree that doesn’t seem to be news to anyone in the house and in house leadership. But house leadership still has been struggling to act, which still refuses to allow a vote on common-sense legislation that would fix our broken system.

As many of you make know, as a member of the house judiciary committee, as a part of a group that introduced HR 15 last congress, which is very similar to the bipartisan senate-passed bill. I think we have the support to pass that legislation if it was allowed a vote on the floor of the house. But unfortunately we we’re never allowed a vote, and that vote never moved forward, that was a bipartisan bill. While the president’s recent executive actions may provide relief to some, it does nothing to solve a problem of an unworkable H2A program.

So early this month, I offered an amendment on a judiciary committee bill that would’ve required the secretaries of Homeland Security and agriculture to certify that e-verify wouldn’t result in significant labor shortages before forcing farmers to use the system. Unfortunately Republicans blocked my amendment there, but I believe we truly still need comprehensive immigration reform, and passing enforcement only mechanisms, like e-verify, would do nothing to solve the problem and only make matters worse for our farmers.

Nearly everyone agrees that our current system is broken, and congress must fix it. So I’ll continue to push for a comprehensive solutions so that our farmers have the workforce that they need. So I want to thank you for inviting me to speak with you here today. I look forward to continuing to work together as we continue to work to make progress in this congress. I hope that you enjoy the rest of your conference here, and I’m happy to take a few questions before they call votes over in the house and I have to run back to the Capitol.

Question: I want to pick up where you left off on the immigration. I understand the bipartisan disagreements that have been going on, no matter who was in the majority. What is the big problem? What is the thing we really need to concentrate on most so we can talk to our legislators to move everybody off the center, and back to where they can start to balance this whole thing out, and really solve the immigration issue? It’s a serious problem, it’s a serious problem for agriculture.

Answer: It’s a serious problem, and my district has technology, agriculture, we have a border, we have every piece that represents a need for immigration reform. So comprehensive legislation is important, as I said we had a bill last congress, HR 15, it was a comprehensive bill, bipartisan bill, we weren’t allowed to vote.

What I would say and as you talk to legislators too, if you don’t like a particular piece of legislation, tell us the legislation you would sign on to. Because we have a lot of folks who said hey, I support comprehensive immigration reform, just not that bill. My response was then show me the bill, because we can’t move forward if you don’t tell me what you will sign.

So if people can be specific about what they do support, then we might be able to help craft legislation that has that support. But I think we would have had that support with the bill that we had last congress, but it needed to get on the floor of the house, and the other thing is it takes one person in house leadership to say, we don’t want to vote on that bill. So, even though it might have gotten the bipartisan support, people are forced to vote, keeping it off the floor.

We have that problem in other areas, reauthorizing the export/import bank might be another example, where we have a lot of broad bipartisan support and yet we haven’t had the chance to bring a bill to the floor. So we’ll continue to work on that too. I think it’s important to not let folks say, hey I’m supportive, generally, ask folks to be specific and tell you what it is that they would sign on to, because last I checked, a bill has to pass the House and the Senate and be signed by the president. So if we really want to solve this problem and actually have peace legislation go through, we’ve got to figure out a way where people come together. Because only getting a bill part way through the process isn’t going to help either.

Question: I don’t understand why the leadership, whether it was the last majority which were the democrats, and this majority which are republicans, because the house has been there for a while. I mean, why would you not want to move something forward? I keep asking my own local Congressman and Senators, and I get such a run around on what is the issue. Is it plain bipartisan, or we want to hold it back for some other reasons. Is there a lobby that’s blocking this thing, or not moving forward? I mean this is crazy!

Answer: I think that I represent a swing district as Steve talked about, I represent a district that probably has every different possible point of view possible in the district. So when I’m talking to people at home, I’m working to balance all of that feedback and find solutions that solve issues, understanding that there’s not just one point of view. We have various challenges, we have people representing districts that are highly partisan, and feel very strongly and are more worried about primary challenge, and making sure they are very hardcore on their position. So districts like mine are rarer these days than common, and I’ve said many times, I think our politics might be better if we had more districts like mine across the country. But we don’t, right now. So as a result, that’s part of the challenge. But there’s also the issue of leadership. Leadership can make a decision to put legislation on the floor. We would have avoided a government shutdown, or even DHS, Department of Homeland Security funding that got held up. We ended up voting on things we could have done right away that never would have caused a last minute problem, because we weren’t willing to put the right legislation on the table. So, I do think that leadership can break that gridlock if they want to. Put legislation on the floor, let the house have a vote.

I think there are many examples where it would make a difference. Immigration is one, I talked about the export, import bank reauthorization, another one. But there are many examples. And if we want to see solutions, bipartisan solutions move forward, we’ve got to allow them also to have a vote. Occasionally, the farm bill was a good example where that was allowed to happen. We had leadership with then Chairman Lucas, and ranking member Peterson, came together in a bipartisan way, because some of our Ag issues are more regional than they are partisan, so that allows an opportunity for folks to come together and yet, as you all know, it was not without struggle as well, on getting the Farm Bill together on our first try. We didn’t get the votes we needed on the floor of the house. So, we eventually got there. And we just need to have more examples of that were folks are willing to work together.

Good, well I know you had a bunch of folks earlier so I’m sure they gave you all the answers too. But I really appreciate the work that you’re doing, and that you gave me the opportunity to spend some time with you here today. I know many folks know how to find us, so definitely, as you have feedback and input as we continue to move forward. We appreciate that, and have a great time while you’re here in Washington, D.C. Thank you.

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