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Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With the National Association of Agriculture Journalists

April 24, 1990

The President. Thank you for that unique introduction -- [laughter] -- and I am -- look, we're just delighted you're here -- Secretary and Cooper Evans telling me that they feel it's most worthwhile. And then I was just picking the brain of my friend -- brains, plural -- of my friend Roger Porter; and I think he, too, has gotten something out of this. So, thank you for coming.

Unfortunately for me, this is a fairly short appearance. But I am glad that you're here -- Clayton telling me this was your, what, 37th annual meeting. Your membership has covered food and ag issues that are absolutely vital. Given the press of today's world, sometimes they may not be in the headlines in the paper every day, but they're vital.

And we do understand it, and frankly I am very pleased with the team that I have in this administration -- agricultural team headed by Clayton Yeutter; in the White House with Roger Porter and Cooper Evans that know this subject well; and then in our trade field, one that Clayt knows so well, and Carla Hills and her people also keenly interested. So, I think I get good advice on it, and I think they hope I'll learn faster. But at least I feel comforted by the fact that our team is respected around the country and on Capitol Hill. So, I'll take this opportunity to thank them.

Just a quick word -- Clayt said you've been very much interested in the farm bill. As you know -- because I assume you've been given that green book that I have, and from that you'll see that we've forwarded some 70 recommendations to the Hill. And they are intended to fine-tune that '85 act, not dramatically change the underlying philosophy. And again, here, all of you are familiar with ag legislation. And I salute Clayton and the White House staff, too, because it isn't easy. You've got a lot of competing interests up there on Capitol Hill.

The '85 act really provided, I think, a sound underpinning for the recovery in agricultural America; and farm exports as a result, I think, have rebounded. Jotted down the figure -- the low $26 billion in '86 to nearly $40 billion last year. In '89, farm income overall hit an all-time high. That is good, but we intend to build on that progress, not relax, because we known some people are still hurting.

You know, this is the Year of the Environment. We've just concluded Earth Day, and I know that there are some conflicting interests here. I happen to think agricultural America, like the rest of the country, is environmentally conscious. But I also know there are some areas where there's conflict. Clayton and Cooper were just over in the Oval Office talking to me about the wetlands question. I am committed to no loss of wetlands. I am not committed to throwing people out of work. And so, we have to balance out some of these interests. And where the regulations have gotten excessive, let us know -- you can't, but your papers will, I'm sure -- and we will try to see that we have a reasonable policy.

But I think we all are committed to a sound environment, and the bill proposals would help preserve this environmental interest without placing an unfair burden on the farmer. And just to put you all at ease, it isn't just agricultural America where we're trying to achieve balance: it's through the whole Ohio Valley and other places where there's a concern that we not end up with an economy in which there is no growth or where people are not able to achieve jobs. So, I guess it ends up on my desk to try to establish a proper balance, but here I'm told by your Secretary that we're getting good, strong cooperation from the farm communities on this question. So, we are proposing a stronger research program, frankly, that will help farmers and the Government make sound, and thus better, environmental decisions.

Now, I know that some have expressed an interest here on the GATT -- Roger whispered to me there's some interest -- and I'll be glad to take questions on Gorbachev, grain sales, and all of that. But, look, I recognize, as I think many farmers do, that agriculture is one of the most distorted sectors of trade. In the last 40 years, GATT has been successful in leveling the playing field in industrial goods by reducing these distortive trade practices while, in the same period -- let's be very candid -- we have not been successful, and certainly as successful as I'd like to see us, in leveling the playing field. There's too much protection for agriculture, and it's almost doubled around the world.

And I think I'll be meeting with EC today -- is it Delors? -- I will be seeing him. And I will tell him what I've already said to him before as President and mentioned to him as Vice President: that we have got to make progress on the agricultural section of our negotiations in this Uruguay round. So, we are not lightening up on that. There's no tradeoff between industrial -- I see Clayt nodding; he's been down that road, and he knows that's true. But if you ask me do I feel comfortable about the progress we've made, the answer is no, I want to do better. I'm trying, but I recognize I've got to do better.

So, those are some of the subjects. But let me just throw the meeting open to questions, and please, you don't have to restrict yourself to agriculture. Why don't we go one, two for openers.


Q. As the "environmental President," the people in Virginia, the farmers and the agricultural community in Virginia, are wondering how we can allow four agencies of the Federal Government to overrule and countermand each other in the wetlands issues -- soil conservation will go onto a farm, improve the activities, even help put them in place. Years later, the EPA will come in, call them violation. The Army Corps of Engineers will come in and say, we don't see any violation. And then the Federal wildlife people will come and say, well, we'd like to have that wetland returned to a wildlife sanctuary.

Now, how -- this is really -- --

The President. The answer to your question -- and you phrased it very well, indeed, because you're talking about the complexity of the Federal Government -- is to do a better job. And the concern of the farmer has been brought to our attention -- do a better job in eliminating some of these overlapping jurisdictional interests.

I am committed to no net loss of wetlands. I am not committed to decisions that take productive land out of production. So, I can only say I understand the frustration. We are trying to do a better job of getting these agencies to work together.

You've got zealots in various levels of the bureaucracy. I think we can handle it pretty well at the top. The problem is, in some areas I think the conflict that you run into is at the very local level, where one agency will come in with a mandate and another will say, Well, we've got a different one.

So, look, all I can say is, we will try very hard to get from the top on down in this instance, in this case, the clarification that is needed so we avoid this frustration to the farmer. And I'm not happy with where it stands.

Price Supports

Q. We listened to Senator Bob Kerrey this morning, who is taking the lead in the Senate on program crops, price supports. He says that the recovery, which you mention, is very fragile and that in order to continue recovery that the support system has to be based on production costs; and that could be at least $12 billion, which is considerably higher than what the administration is proposing. He says if it's not at least that much the cost in the future to make up for the problems that will be caused by not helping the farmers in production will be much greater. Can you speak to that?

The President. No, I can't. I believe in what we're trying to do. And I get criticism all day long about this economy from liberal Democrats like Bob, whom I have respect in some fields -- [laughter] -- and he's entitled to his opinion. But I place my confidence in our Agricultural Department and in what we're trying to do in the farm bill.

I'll tell you what we do have is sometimes we have just a philosophical difference of opinion. We ran into that in the campaign -- this supply management approach, and I'm not sure that's what he's advocating, is not one I'm for. And I expect I'll find some advocates for the different positions sitting here, of people to whom you write. But I just have a different view than he does on this.

Secretary Yeutter. Can I just add one supplementary -- --

The President. Yes.

Secretary Yeutter. -- -- comment very quickly, because this has come up, Mr. President, before, not only with Senator Kerrey but some others, by Members of Congress determining through themselves that farm incomes are directly related only to government financial assistance.

Somehow or other, Senator Kerrey and others have forgotten that there is a market out there and that farmers get most of their income from the marketplace, and hopefully over time will get more of it from the marketplace.

All of us, including the President and myself, are concerned about the farm incomes. But that doesn't suggest that the only way to increase farm incomes is to increase Federal subsidies.

Economic Sanctions Against the Soviet Union

Q. We understand that you are considering some economic sanctions against the Soviet Union for what may or may not happen in Lithuania. I know you can't make any announcements today -- couldn't give out information about it -- but could you tell us whether you have ruled out -- --

The President. No, I can't tell you what I've ruled in and ruled out, except one area that would be very -- I mention this only because we're all here today with agriculture as the matrix of this meeting. I would refer you back to statements I have made in terms of using grain as a political weapon. And I'm talking here, obviously, about the grain agreement with the Soviet Union. I am disinclined to accept any suggestions about using a grain embargo as a manifestation of our displeasure and our grief over what's happening in Lithuania. So, I won't say what I might do.

I've just concluded a very interesting meeting with the bipartisan leadership of the Congress. And I will say this: that in my view, the meeting that we have just concluded exemplifies the best in bipartisanship and the best in consultation. Out of that meeting, different Senators and different House Members will have differing views. But I can tell you, not one single person there suggested that I change my position and use the grain deal or sales of wheat to the Soviet Union as a tool to try to change the Soviets' minds on things. So, that will give you a sense of the meeting, anyway. But I have no intention of changing my mind.

What I have said on that is if we ever reached a point in our trade relations where all trade was off, then I expect the farmer would understand. But to go back to the disastrous grain embargo that hurt us with our markets and hurt our farmers worse than I think it hurt anybody else, I'm simply not going to do that.

Q. I have one of those famous two-part Washington questions for you. One, when will you share with the American people your decisions on Lithuania, since obviously the Soviet Government will know what your policy is? Do you think the American people should know it, too?

And the second part of my -- --

The President. Would you like me to repeat it for you right here?

Q. No, I mean on your decisions on what you're going to do and the appropriate response to Lithuania. And part number two: You've spoken to the environmental initiatives being in the farm bill. Is your administration willing to go beyond that and accept a suggestion such as a farmer should reduce use of agricultural chemicals that reduce erosion on environmentally sensitive land? Should they write 5-year programs in to reduce those certain problems? Should they keep records on pesticide use?

The President. I would refer those questions to my Secretary of Agriculture, and I will be heavily persuaded by what he tells me. On the first question, though, let me tell you that I will share with the American people my decision when I make the decision. And you know that I have not decided what will be done. And this is a highly complex situation that we're facing, and there's a lot at stake in this situation. I don't want to make -- you know, remember Yogi Berra: "What happened? Why did you lose the ball game?" He said, "We made the wrong mistake." [Laughter] You got to think about that one. And I don't want to make the wrong mistake.

I may do something that is imprudent, but I'm encouraged by the consultation because I feel that the American people do understand my policy. And that is to handle this situation as follows: One, make very clear that the American people feel that the independence and the self-determination of Lithuania is right -- a part of our very fiber, a part of our very soul -- the right to self-determination. And indeed, heartened as we are by democratic change in Eastern Europe, we would like to think that the Baltic countries, whose incorporation into the Soviet Union we have never recognized, would someday enjoy that freedom. So, that's the hallmark of the policy.

Secondly, we are considering ways to encourage the Soviet Union to go forward. The whole matter could be resolved today in this matter -- that if they would begin a dialog, if they would discuss peaceful change in the evolution of freedom. And I would encourage right here the Soviet Union and the Lithuanians to go forward with dialog. Right now there's a delegation from Lithuania in the Soviet Union, and let's hope they can start talking. This has a great deal of potential for the freedom that we seek for the Lithuanians, and yet have it done in a way that is not egregious to the Soviet Union. And so, therein lies the answer.

But in relation to your question -- What are we going to do about it? -- I will let the American people know and the Congress know when I decide to take certain action. And the decision has not been made. And once again, I'd like to say I wish you all could have been flies on the wall in the Cabinet Room, because the meeting on consultation was extraordinarily helpful. And I am very grateful -- this is the first chance I've had to speak to the AP [Associated Press] or the UP [United Press International] or other reporters -- very grateful for the spirit of bipartisanship, the frank discussion that took place and, indeed, the support that I felt existed around the table for the approach that I am taking.

And I think the American people are in support of that approach, and I say that with total appreciation for the strength of the feeling that Lithuanians in this country have about their own freedom. But I also am concerned about the freedom of Poland. I'm concerned about the evolution of freedom in the other Baltic States, whose incorporation we haven't recognized. I am concerned that we not inadvertently do something that compels the Soviet Union to take action that would set back the whole case of freedom around the world.

So, it's a very complex time, and that's why I would respond to your question that I just will certainly announce it as soon as I have made any determination as to what steps should be taken. And I think you'd see that any steps we did take -- if there was anything done, it would most apt to be in the economic side. But I'm not going to give up on trying to get the Soviet Union and the Lithuanians into a dialog. I think that's a constructive approach; I think that that's the approach that the American people and others around the world want. We've had extensive consultation with our allies and with friends in different parts of the world, and that approach is the approach that I think would have universal support.

Last one.

Federal Deficit Reduction

Q. Interest rates are still too high, too high -- too high for industry as well as for agriculture. I think there's a general feeling out there that Congress and the White House are dealing in gimmickry to bring the deficit down. There are not serious steps of reduction even after all is said and done. Outside of capital gains, are you considering any other strategies to bring the deficit down?

The President. What's happened on that is we sent a budget proposal -- some criticized it as having gimmicks. Congress, under the law, was supposed to have their budget proposals on the table by April 1st. Had a little time slippage on that. They will come forward at some point, and then we sit down and try to negotiate out the differences and move this deficit forward. But I'm glad you mentioned it, because it does affect interest rates on every quadrant, every section of our economy, and something needs to be done.

I would also say that I am still very much concerned about the spending side of the equation. And that isn't just in agriculture, it's across the whole specter. I send up a special resolution to try to send a laser-like support for Nicaragua and Panama, and the next thing you know, we've added over a billion dollars' worth of spending to that request. And next week it's something else, and yesterday it was something else.

So, I have to be the one, feeling as I do about the economy, that tries to constrain the excesses of spending. And some will say raise taxes, but what's the point of raising taxes if it just opens the floodgates to more spending. So, we're in a time period here where the Congress has the next move, and then I'm sure we'll have a negotiation that I hope will lead to real reductions in this deficit. I am somewhat encouraged by the fact that the economy continues to grow. I am very encouraged by the fact that our deficit is significantly lower percentage of our gross national product than it's been. But that is no argument to lessen our desire to get the deficit down. So, that's about where we stand.

Listen, thank you all very much for coming. Appreciate it. I appreciate your being here.

Note: The President spoke at 11:36 a.m. in the Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Office Building. In his opening remarks, he referred to Secretary of Agriculture Clayton K. Yeutter; Cooper Evans, Special Assistant to the President for Agricultural Trade and Food Assistance; and Roger B. Porter, Assistant to the President for Economic and Domestic Policy. Jacques Delors was President of the European Community Commission.

George Bush, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With the National Association of Agriculture Journalists Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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