This week U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman defended the President’s trade agenda by spending nearly two hours answering questions from members of the Senate Finance Committee and approximately the same on the other side of Capitol Hill before the House Ways and Means Committee.
During President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, Republicans quickly rose to their feet and applauded his mention of the need to pass Trade Promotion Authority. But as referenced by some members of the Senate Finance Committee, Obama is going to need to make sure he’s “all-in” in pushing Congress to grant him the fast track authority.
Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had the negotiating authority Obama is seeking under TPA renewal. But it’s also been a bipartisan, close battle in recent decades. The last time it passed was in 2002 where the House approved it narrowly by a vote of 215 to 212 with 190 Republicans and 27 Democrats making up the majority. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 64 to 34 with 20 Democrats voting in favor of it.
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who also serves on the Senate Finance Committee, said during the hearing he worries that the President’s already seven veto threats to the Republican-controlled House and Senate doesn’t indicate the president is going to continue the partisan dragging of feet.
“We’re in, I know you’re in, but I hope the president is,” Roberts said to Froman.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., echoed Roberts’ sentiments and added the President needs to be engaged on Capitol Hill “as we try to push [TPA] across the finish line.”
Former USTR ambassador and current Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman added that the president needs to be out there pushing to open new markets as 95% of the world’s population lives outside our border. Currently 45% or more of U.S. exports go to just 10% of the world.
As Froman said at the U.S. Conference of Mayors the day after the address, "America has always been strongest when it speaks with one voice, and that's exactly what Trade Promotion Authority helps us do."
During the hearings, Froman told Congressional members that passing Trade Promotion Authority “puts Congress in the driver’s seat to define U.S. negotiating objectives and priorities for trade agreements.” He added it clarifies and strengthens public and Congressional oversight by requiring consultations and transparency throughout the negotiating process.
“This will be a critical year for trade,” he said, noting that a robust discussion is needed on opening markets and raising labor and environmental standards.
Negotiations on TPP, which includes the United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, are drawing to a conclusion, with the latest round of talks occurring last week. TPP countries account for roughly 40% of the world’s GDP.
Froman testified that the talks could be concluded in a matter of a “small number of months” and said recent discussions have focused on market access. Much time has been devoted to Japan’s requests on its agricultural markets, but Canada also has refused to increase market access for U.S. dairy, poultry and eggs.
“We are making good progress on market access, but we still have work to do. I’m confident we’re making good progress and hoping to close out a good package soon,” he said. He added that USTR continues to work with stakeholders such as commodity groups to ensure the final package addresses their concerns and creates real value.
With Japan he said for the last year, agricultural negotiations have centered on the nearly 1800 tariff lines of products, including what Japan deems “sanctuary products” which they want extra protection on. The goal, Froman said, was to get an agreement that all products will be covered in the TPP with Japan, and going line-by-line to maximize the full tariff elimination and create as much meaningful access on each one.
There’s been plenty of skepticism regarding TPP negotiations, and the little information that’s being provided to the public. In the Senate, one hearing attendee was escorted out of the hearing room after shouting at Froman once he began sharing his testimony that the Trans Pacific Partnership is “negotiated in secret” and that fast track authority would only allow the administration to “rush it through Congress” without the American public knowing what’s in any final deal.
However, Froman testified before any deal, Congress and the public will get a look at the final negotiated text. And now commodity groups are being closely consulted with to see if negotiations can be reached that attains a level of market access palatable to their industries.
Froman said here is no other area of policy that reflects closer coordination between the Executive branch and Congress than trade policy.
Agriculture can be the locomotive in paving the way for new markets for U.S. grown goods. It’s just time to make sure everyone recognizes what’s at stake.