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U.S. Farm Support: Compliance with WTO Commitments

Paperback - 20 October 2019
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As a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements, the United States has committed to abide by WTO rules and disciplines, including those that govern domestic farm policy as spelled out in the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA). Since establishment of the WTO on January 1, 1995, the United States has complied with its WTO spending limits on marketdistorting types of farm program outlays (referred to as amber box spending). However, the addition of large, new trade assistance payments to producers in 2018 and 2019, on top of existing farm program support, has raised concerns by some U.S. trading partners, as well as market watchers and policymakers, that U.S. domestic farm subsidy outlays might exceed the annual spending limit of $19.1 billion agreed to as part of U.S. commitments to WTO member countries. CRS analysis indicates that the United States probably did not violate its WTO spending limit in 2018 but could potentially exceed it in 2019. A farm support program can violate WTO commitments in two principal ways: first, by exceeding spending limits on certain market-distorting programs, and second, by generating distortions that spill over into the international marketplace and cause significant adverse effects. Program outlays are cumulative, and compliance with WTO commitments is based on annual aggregate spending levels. Under the WTO's AoA, total U.S. amber box outlays (that is, those outlays deemed market distorting) are limited to $19.1 billion annually, subject to de minimis exemptions. De minimis exemptions are spending that is sufficiently small (less than 5% of the value of production)-relative to either the value of a specific product or total production-to be deemed benign. Since 1995, the United States has apparently stayed within its amber box limits. However, U.S. compliance has hinged on judicious use of the de minimis exemptions in a number of years to exclude certain amber box spending from counting against the amber box limit. These exemptions have never been challenged by another WTO member. According to CRS analysis, projected U.S. amber box spending for 2018 (inclusive of $8.7 billion in product-specific outlays under the 2018 trade assistance package) could exceed $14 billion. This would be the largest U.S. amber box notification since 2001. However, despite its magnitude, it still would fit within the U.S. spending limit of $19.1 billion. A more ambiguous result is projected for 2019. The expansion of direct payments under a second trade assistance package to $14.5 billion in 2019 and their shift to a non-product-specific WTO classification-when combined with currently projected spending under other non-product-specific programs such as the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) programs-could push U.S. amber box outlays above $24 billion. This would be in excess of the U.S. amber box spending limit of $19.1 billion. However, this projection hinges on several as-yet-unknown factors, including market prices, output values, and program outlays under traditional countercyclical ARC and PLC programs. If the final price and revenue values are higher than currently projected, then program payments under ARC and PLC could be smaller than those used in this analysis. This could decrease both aggregate non-product-specific outlays and the possibility of exceeding the amber box spending limit. If cumulative payments in any year were to exceed the agreed-upon spending limit, then the United States would be in violation of its commitments and could be vulnerable to a challenge under the WTO's dispute settlement mechanism. Furthermore, to the extent that such program outlays might induce surplus production and depress market prices, they could also result in potential challenges under the WTO.

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