MARTINSVILLE – Hyper headlines about trade, tariffs, and treaties are really nothing new, and neither are the terrified commentaries about what is going to happen to the U.S. economy. The history of trade debate is part of our country’s crazy quilt of political shifts and turns in policy. Just a quick look at history can calm us and provide a better context for the current trade debate.  
 
Today’s low U.S. tariff levels are the product of a (mostly) bipartisan consensus in favor of progressively freer trade that dates back to the post-World War II era. But that consensus was emphatically not the case for the first 150 years or so of the nation’s history: Tariff policy was the subject of fierce disagreement between Republicans (and earlier, Whigs) who favored high rates to protect American industries from foreign competition, and Democrats who by and large argued that any tariffs higher than necessary to fund the federal government unfairly taxed the many to benefit the few.
 
To be clear, we have learned lessons from the Smoot-Hawley tariffs. I do not suggest we should repeat that experience.  
 
I admit that I am writing on something about which I have as much bias as I have knowledge. I am biased in favor of freely engaging in trade and against tariffs in general. But I also want a fair treatment for U.S. exports, not like past experiences when we have turned a blind eye toward exploitation of U.S. goods while other countries violated treaties with impunity. As for impacts of trade upon agriculture, I am also in favor of giving agriculture a break rather than another burden. 
 
With my basic leaning toward free trade, I do not consider President Trump’s trade initiatives as policies in the traditional sense, but rather as negotiating strategies. The president and Secretary of Commerce Ross have made a valid point; our trading partners tend to impose higher tariffs than the U.S. does. We should highlight the valid U.S. concerns and demand that our trading partners lower their tariffs through the proper channels. 
 
But wait, you might say, haven’t we done that for years? Well, maybe the tough talk from President Trump about what our trading partners have been doing to the U.S. is necessary to get us to a point of free and fair trade. It might be a good time to cease the whiny undermining of the president and start to seriously consider how we might best shape trade policy for the future, for the long haul. 
 
In thinking about the long-term best interests of the United States, we need to strengthen our policy for agriculture. Sustainable and profitable agricultural production is a national security priority. If you say it is not, then I say it should be. And by the way, my husband and I grow corn and beans on our farms. As producers, we pay part of our crop money into check-offs. Those dollars can be used to develop new products and to better market agricultural products, domestically, and in countries where we are getting along OK on the trade front. But, our check off dollars cannot be used to achieve the policy that U. S. agriculture needs. 
 
I think it is in our best interests not to handicap the president as he attempts to negotiate in this trade climate. That is one of the jobs a president is elected to do. Let him do his best. As for Congress, it does not set the details of U.S. trade policy. In 1934, Congress delegated authority to negotiate trade deals with other countries and, under certain circumstances, raise or lower import duties to the president. And that is the authority President Trump has relied on for this year’s tariff increases.
 
I love ranchers and farmers. There is no more community-minded and generous group of people in the world. When it is time to fight our country’s wars, it’s the rural 20% that provides over 40% of the military. The trade wars are another battle and yes, the rural communities are suffering from previous administrations’ policies. Secretary Perdue believes that President Trump will not forget the farmers and ranchers. I agree with Secretary Perdue, but it is up to us, the farmers and ranchers, to tell President Trump how we want to be remembered.
 
President Trump could be the best president ever for rural America and for poor Americans. If the agriculture community will join together with proposals for policy changes in three critical areas, the President can make new and better agricultural policy supporting the production of food and essential agricultural products. We have a national security interest in the viability of agriculture and rural communities. 
 
First, fix transportation. Immediately. Rewrite the Federal Motor Carrier rules so the price of transportation of products and perishables does not continue to drive the price of food up. If we cannot get produce and livestock to the markets and agricultural products to the ports, trade negotiation will not matter. Update and repair the river locks and make river transportation of grain cheaper and easier. Fund well-designed, not special interest or advocacy group driven, research for transportation policy for remote and rural communities. 
 
Second, recognize that the significant differences in climate and terrain of this country require a more localized approach to health and environmental policy development and implementation. Again, we have a national security interest in the viability of remote and rural communities.
 
Third, revise federal grant-making policy so that the money gets used for local needs within the broad programmatic areas. The money should not be siphoned off on its way back home to the taxpayers.
 
The president can direct White House staff to offer full support to the agencies to accomplish these critical aims long before he can fix the trade issues. Those of us who care about agriculture and our rural communities can quit whining and help the president make rural and agricultural policy great.  
 
Chezem is a former Indiana Court of Appeals judge. She is a professor at Purdue University in the Department of Youth Development and Agriculture Education. She holds an adjunct appointment at the IU School of Medicine, Department of Medicine, with the Indiana Alcohol Research Center. She practices law with Foley Peden and Wisco in Martinsville. She will write columns for Howey Politics Indiana on law and agriculture.