Politics of Poverty

Time to stop paying the cotton bribe?

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Why two Congressmen are proposing the US break the rules.

Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) are promoting legislation that would force the US to be a scofflaw. Last week, two members introduced legislation that would prohibit the US from making an annual payment of $147 million to Brazil.  They’re outraged that the US makes this payment – a sort of hush-money – to induce Brazil from punishing the US with more painful penalties under a WTO ruling against US cotton subsidies.

A cotton field in North Carolina. Photo: Liliana Rodriguez / Oxfam America
A cotton field in North Carolina. Photo: Liliana Rodriguez / Oxfam America

Kind and Blumenauer think it’s absurd to be paying off Brazil when we have a budget crisis, and want to bring pressure on Congress to reform the cotton subsidies rather than make this annual payment.  This would happen through the Farm Bill, which Congress was unable—or unwilling—to pass last year.  The House Agriculture Committee will restart the process on May 15 with a “markup” in the committee.

Even if Congress does pass a new Farm Bill, it’s not clear that it will reform cotton subsidies.  Last year’s draft versions of the Farm Bill didn’t come close, and Brazil could still retaliate.

Strangely, Brazil has been very gentle with the US and has refrained from harsher penalties for years.  When Congress failed to pass a Farm Bill and reform cotton subsidies last year, Brazil meekly agreed to keep the current payment.  They might not get their full payment this year, actually, as US Agriculture Secretary Vilsack may think the budget sequester, which shaves spending all over the government, will apply to the Brazil payment.

Perhaps, Brazil’s patience with the US over cotton subsidies can be explained by the fact that the Brazilian Ambassador to the WTO, Roberto Azevedo, is vying for a new job as head of the WTO. It certainly wouldn’t help his campaign to alienate one of the biggest member states. I’ve met Minister Azevedo and respect and like him a lot, so I don’t mean to impugn him or imply anything unethical.

At some point, the WTO job will be filled and then, perhaps, the US will have run out of leverage and exhausted Brazil’s patience.

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