Thank you for that wonderful, warm welcome. And thank you, Graham for your very kind words of introduction; and heartfelt thanks for your good work on behalf of tobacco farmers in North Carolina. Richard, I am so glad to see you today. You are truly to be commended for your years of outstanding service as president of the North Carolina Tobacco Growers Association and your strong support for North Carolina's tobacco farm families. I know we share a commitment to helping our farmers, and this organization has such a good team in Richard Renegar, Frank Grainger and Graham Boyd. And I look forward to working with your new president Sam Crews and all of the members of this organization.
It is indeed a privilege to be with all of you this morning. The new congressional session in Washington is off to a swift start, and we've been spending a lot of time working on the tobacco quota buyout.
But before I go there, let me say that it's a privilege to serve on the Agriculture Committee, and from that position, I have worked to ensure that all of the trade agreements signed by the United States include provisions on tobacco and tobacco products. Last year, when factions of our government wanted to exclude such provisions from trade agreements with Chili and Singapore, I worked with President Bush to protect them. As a result of our victory on those agreements, it will be much more likely that any future Trade Agreements signed by the Bush Administration will include provisions on tobacco and tobacco products. And let me give you my word, I will continue to work with the Administration to ensure that those future agreements contain appropriate tobacco provisions.
But I know there's one thing that's on all of your minds today. And it's at the top of my agenda in the United States Senate—the tobacco quota buyout, which we all know is so desperately needed. A buyout would give those who have had farms for generations the opportunity to keep them, and pass them on to future generations. It would give farmers who are ready to retire the comfort of knowing that their years of hard work were not without a fair return. They would be able to retire with dignity. And, the buyout would provide a future for those farmers who want to continue to grow tobacco—an opportunity to compete again in the world marketplace—and regain America's rightful share of tobacco production.
On my way here today, I was reflecting on the fact that it was one year ago when Senator Mitch McConnell and I pulled together all of the tobacco state senators to begin to develop consensus tobacco buyout legislation. After 6 months of hard work, the tobacco state senators were able to come together, for the first time, with a bill that was dropped in late July. This was a major hurdle that had to be crossed in order to achieve a tobacco buyout in the Senate. Of course, as you are aware, because of the makeup and the rules of the Senate, FDA regulation is the only way to pass a buyout on the Senate floor. We simply don't have the votes to pass a buyout by itself in the Senate without coupling it to FDA. The committee that has jurisdiction over FDA regulation, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, was unable to report out a bill in September. Unfortunately, when the FDA component failed to be reported out of the HELP committee, it ended any hope of passing a tobacco buyout off of the Senate floor by the end of the session.
Because of the economic devastation that you face and the severity of the quota cut that was looming on the horizon, I led an effort, along with Richard Burr and Jack Kingston on the House side, to include a tobacco buyout on the end of the year consolidated spending bill. As you know, there was not enough support to include even this scaled-down buyout. The reality is this: the word tobacco is so radioactive that many members opposed it. In fact, articles that came out in the Washington Post and other national papers condemning our effort to include the buyout illustrate just how difficult this task is. In fact, one editorial by Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post, said—and I quote—"The one I really love is the proposal to have the government bribe tobacco farmers to give up the price supports that have subsidized their operations—and helped ruin the health of millions of Americans—since 1938. Tobacco farmers consider these quotas personal property that can be bought and sold and passed on to successive generations. But now that demand for tobacco is failing, even the subsidies aren't enough to keep the burly growers in the rural lifestyle to which they are accustomed. So those free-market hypocrites, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, are trying to add a rider to the omnibus appropriations bill that would have the government spend $13 billion to buy out a bunch of quotas and bring production down to levels where it would have been if the government hadn't been subsidizing tobacco in the first place."
There was a point in time when the tobacco industry was able to build coalitions with others to achieve their legislative priorities. It is no secret that the public attitude toward tobacco is at an all-time low. As a result, those coalitions that once existed are no more. And the tobacco companies no longer have common goals as an industry. Each is in the midst of a corporate struggle for market share.
This is illustrated by the fact that one company wants FDA regulation while the rest of the industry will fight to the death to defeat it. A tobacco buyout that is not coupled with FDA regulation will not be supported by Philip Morris, and a tobacco buyout that is coupled with FDA regulation will not be supported by RJ Reynolds, Brown and Williamson, Lorillard or any of the small manufacturers.
Of course, you would think that since taxpayers weren't paying for those buyout packages, this shouldn't have been so hard to do. This leads me to the second problem that we faced then, and will continue to face: There are a number of members in Congress who are very leery of voting for a package that many opponents of a buyout in Washington consider a tax increase. Additionally, there are opponents of a tobacco buyout in Washington who see no reason why tobacco farmers should receive any compensation when in their view, they have been the privileged ones that benefited from a tobacco program. And you would be surprised at the number of farm families in non-tobacco states who feel the same way and who are telling their representatives in Washington that providing billions for a few tobacco states simply isn't fair.
In order to achieve a buyout we are going to have to find innovative ways to get around these obstacles. Many of you remember in February 2002, Senator Helms delivered a speech by video in which he stated that a tobacco buyout would be the hardest thing that he would have tackled in his 30 years in the U.S. Senate. He also said that if we were fortunate enough to get a buyout, the dollar amount that you would receive would not be determined by tobacco state members but by those who do not represent tobacco states. After all, there are far more of them than there are of us. Time since then has proved, and continues to prove, that Senator Helms was right. No matter who you are, Republican or Democrat, these same obstacles exist and must be dealt with.
Now, more than ever, there is an understanding of the significant need for a tobacco buyout. I am committed to doing everything within my power to make it happen. But I have to be realistic with you all. I want you to know the lay of the land in the United States Congress. I cannot look you in the eye, nor can anyone else—Republican or Democrat, and guarantee that a tobacco buyout can be achieved. However, I can tell you that every effort is being made, every stone is being uncovered, to find a way to make this happen.
I continue to work at this daily: to find a way to get this done—and done soon. When rural North Carolina hurts, so does the rest of North Carolina. As a result of our effort on the end of the year spending bill, a significant amount of momentum was built -- raising this issue to a new level of attention that it had not received before. In fact, just this past week, you may have seen press reports out of Kentucky that confirmed Speaker Hastert's intention to help move a tobacco buyout forward in the U.S. House of Representatives.
My friends, you continue to overcome the many, many challenges that tobacco farmers face. You have persevered because of your strength of character. And that is why I have such great respect for you and your values. You contribute so much to our country's reservoir of strength. Our farm families are the foundation for the determination, the grit, the resolve that enables us to promote freedom.
You are, indeed, the essence of what America is about.
So many of you have supported me and my husband, Bob, over the years, and I thank you for the privilege of serving you in the United States Senate. I am proud to stand with you. Together…with patience…with perseverance…with prudence…and with the Lord's help…I will continue to work to make a tobacco quota buyout a reality.
Thank you, and God bless you!