PTH Newsmakers Interview: Congressman Jason Smith (R-MO)
Protect The Harvest: Since your time in the state legislature in Missouri, you have been a vocal advocate for agriculture. Why is that a major focus for you?
Congressman Jason Smith: My passion for agriculture helped me decide that I wanted to get into public service. Growing up I saw firsthand how every time someone in our community tried to get ahead, regulations held them back. This led me to become an attorney to help individuals fight back, so that if they wanted to work hard and get ahead, the government, environmentalists, or animal rights activists wouldn’t be holding them back.
I also became involved with Future Farmers of America through school, and it was one of the best things that happened to me growing up. Before being in FFA I was so shy I could hardly speak in public, but after going through the program, and being elected to numerous leadership positions, I had developed the confidence and skills to overcome my shyness.
For example, as part of joining FFA you have to get up in front of the class and say the FFA creed. The first time I tried to do that, I was so nervous, I could hardly say a few words at a time, let alone finish the whole thing. Eventually, after many tries, I was able to say the creed. My school’s involvement in FFA and agricultural education are an integral part of my success, and I want to continue to advocate for agriculture so that other kids will have the same opportunities that I did. Agriculture is a way of life, and we need to protect it for future generations.
PTH: In August, Missourians adopted Amendment 1, also known as the Missouri Farming Rights Amendment. People may not know that you were an early supporter of this amendment while you were in the legislature. What was Amendment 1 designed to accomplish and why was it important for Missouri
JS: Amendment 1 was the culmination of many years of work between myself and other members of the Missouri House and Senate who shared a common goal to protect agriculture. As demographics continue to change, and as our society continues to be further removed from the agricultural process, and how the food that they eat gets to the table, we worried that it would be possible for outside interest groups to take advantage of this demographic shift, and begin to restrict agricultural practices that, for whatever reason, they don’t agree with.
Instead of having to come in and try to fight these groups every time they want to restrict how many animals a person can own, or where people can raise them, we thought, hey, let’s get out in front of this thing and go on the offensive for agriculture. Let’s make a case to the people of Missouri that agriculture is worth protecting, that it is a valuable way of life worthy of passing down to our kids. Missourians should decide whether or not our kids should be able to farm, not animal rights organizations based on the east or west coasts.
The idea that I came up with out of these discussions was to create a constitutional amendment protecting farming just like any other right, like the right to keep and bear arms, or the right to freedom of speech. With this constitutional right, sure, there could still be some restrictions on agriculture, just like there are still some restrictions on free speech (you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater), but agriculture would have a much higher level of protection than it has now, so that when these groups try to come in from out-of-state, the right to farm will be there like a shield, deflecting their arrows and protecting the farmers of Missouri.
In August we took the issue before the voters of the State of Missouri, and though it was narrow, I couldn’t be happier that the people of Missouri agreed with those of us who wrote the amendment, and stood up together and said yes, agriculture is important, and yes, it is worth protecting for future generations.
PTH: Now that you are in Congress, what are some of the differences in how the federal government and state governments deal with agriculture? Do the different levels of government have separate/distinct roles on agriculture?
JS: One of the most exciting areas I have been able to work on in Congress, in that it is very important to the Agricultural industry as a whole, is international trade. Agriculture is an area in which the United States consistently exports more goods than it imports, and access to foreign markets for our domestic farmers is critically important for them to be able to get good prices for the fruits of their labor. Here are some numbers to give you context for how important international trade is to agriculture. (We got the date from here)
In Missouri, Agriculture is our number one industry. Missouri’s Eighth Congressional District is one of the most agriculturally diverse outside of the state of California, producing everything but citrus and sugar. International trade is critically important for all of the products we produce, whether they are rice, cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, potatoes, peaches, blueberries, apples, pears, pork, beef, poultry, eggs, dairy, or anything else, everything is better in agriculture when folks have a market to sell in, and the rules are fair to American farmers. I am excited to work at the federal level to keep current markets open for business, and also to find and grow new ones.
PTH: Over the next few years, what are some of the major challenges facing American farmers, ranchers and food producers?
JS: I have touched on some or all of these themes before, so stop me if I’m sounding repetitive, but I think the demographic shift that is going on nationwide is one of the biggest threats our farmers face. We need to do more as an agricultural community to educate folks about how important agriculture is, and how blessed we are as a nation to have access to the abundant food resources that we do. I know that is a lot of what Protect the Harvest is about – so I commend you all on your efforts – not everyone is as lucky as I was in having access to an FFA education and growing up on the family farm.
PTH: HSUS has been attempting to push federal regulations on the sizes/nature of cages and crates for egg laying hens. Is this problematic? If so, why?
JS: To call this problematic is quite an understatement. California is refusing to accept lawfully raised eggs in Missouri on the basis of their state laws – I think a clear violation of several constitutional doctrines, not the least of which being the commerce clause and its investiture of interstate regulation largely at the federal level. Missouri and several other states sued on these grounds and their lawsuit was recently thrown out for “lack of standing” – a setback but hopefully not the end of the process. I for one am hoping that Missouri will find a way to continue in its suit, and that our farmers will not be regulated by the legislature in Sacramento – a body in which they have absolutely no representation.
Now imagine if this were a federal law. Missouri farmers, and farmers all across the country, would largely be stuck, and would be forced to pass on the costs of compliance to consumers, or simply go out of business. Less producers and higher production costs would likely result in higher costs for the consumer at the grocery store.
PTH: What can Congress do, or stop doing, to make food more affordable?
JS: Congress can, and should, pull back some of the authority that has been granted to regulatory agencies in the past. Some of the biggest cost increases on the horizon for agriculture are regulatory in nature. For example, the “Waters of the United States” rule is based on regulatory authority in the Clean Water Act of 1972, and threatens to pour unfathomable permitting costs all over family farmers. If it goes through, the rule could force farmers to get permits from the Corps of Engineers for every accumulation of water on their property, including dry gullies, ditches, wet spots at the bottom of a hill, or possibly even rain gutters on their house. A 2002 study that was cited in the 2006 Rapanos Supreme Court decision found that obtaining an individual permit, on average, took 788 days and cost $271,000. Imagine the costs if this rule goes through and dramatically increases the number of these permits that are required.
Another 1970’s era piece of legislation that is currently threatening farmers with new regulation is the Clean Air Act. Its provisions are the primary tool being used by the EPA to issue new coal power plant regulations that threaten to dramatically increase the price of electricity, perhaps by three-fold. My district, not unlike many other agricultural districts in the Midwest, is powered by 84% coal fired generation. Increases in the price of electricity to farmers will show up at the grocery store in the price of food. Unfortunately, the individuals who are already struggling to pay their utility bills, and to afford food to feed their families, will be hit the hardest by these new regulations as their bills skyrocket and food gets more expensive.
To turn back this tide I have co-sponsored and worked on several pieces of legislation to pare back agencies’ authority to issue rules and regulations, to subject new rules and regulations to approval by Congress, and also to take burdensome rules and regulations off the books. My legislation, the SCRUB ACT, is designed to identify and eliminate outdated and ineffective regulations. It would create a bi-partisan commission to review regulations and make recommendations for repeal, with a goal to repeal 15% of the regulations currently on the books. It would also require that before agencies can issue new regulations, they have to take old regulations off of the books with the same economic impact.
PTH: Anything that you would like to say in closing?
JS: Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview and thank you for the work you all do educating folks about how important agriculture is. In this environment of federal overreach and overregulation we all need to be constantly vigilant to protect our industry and we also have to be able to work together. I commend your efforts to do both.