Ag trade issues on USTR ambassador’s radar

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House and Senate host hearings to feature insight from USTR Ambassador Tai on issues including agriculture.

U.S. Trade Representative Katharine Tai spent several hours on May 12 and May 13 before members of Congress outlining the Biden administration’s trade policy. Agricultural issues including enforcement of the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, renewing Trade Promotion Authority and advancing more trade agreements were commonly called on to help farmers.

As a former staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee who received 98 votes in her Senate floor confirmation, many have high expectations for bipartisanship and the ability to work across the aisle. The USMCA agreement was able to garner wide bipartisanship, and Tai wants to see that continue.

While speaking to the Senate Finance Committee on May 12, Tai says she is working on “turning the page on erratic trade policies.” After the Trump administration’s use of tariffs and work to bring China to the table, both remain under scrutiny as Tai assumes the role of USTR ambassador.

Tai opened her comments to both chambers by saying that the government can use trade tools to incentivize a race to the top, and build a cleaner and brighter future, with new market opportunities and high-paying, quality jobs. In her comments to the Senate Finance Committee, she adds by encouraging fresh, collaborative thinking, we can forge consensus among diverse groups and find solutions that we never knew existed.

“Our farmers, ranchers, fishers and food processors will benefit from our new approach and they are essential to meeting our climate and sustainability goal,” she says.

Related: Ag groups send climate letter to trade ambassador

How Tai looks to use trade policy to meet climate and sustainability goals will be an important one to watch for farmers.

TPA and future trade agreements

When the Obama administration left office, extensive work had gone on finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and negotiations with the EU on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. But Tai does not look like she’s ready to jump back in where the Obama administration left off.

She notes it’s been five years since those negotiations were abandoned, and years that were quite impactful of how the United States handled trade policy as well as the world getting hit with a pandemic. She says she’s committed to figuring out the best trade approach ahead, as well as what is relevant to the economy.

In his opening comments at the House hearing, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, says the Biden Administration’s trade agreement moratorium “needs to cease.” He notes new trade agreements are needed to promote workers and sell our products, whether in the UK, Kenya, Japan, the EU, the Asia-Pacific, or elsewhere.

“It is the right time and we have the right U.S. trade representative in place. And we have the right bipartisan dynamics to move these agreements forward,” Brady says.

He says the first step is to renew the strong partnership between Congress and the administration on trade through Trade Promotion Authority, which expires later this year. TPA provides trading partners the assurance that whatever negotiations are brokered, Congressional members can give an up or down vote without amendments.

Related: Vilsack urges Trade Promotion Authority renewal

Tai says she sees an opportunity to rethink the way TPA works and rethink objectives that we want to be pursuing in trade agreements. She also adds that on the heels of the USMCA, which included environmental and labor provisions, it provides an opportunity to look at TPA through the lens of “Build Back Better” and clarify from the administration what a trade agreement agenda could accomplish for the U.S. economy.   

During questioning, Brady pressed Tai for a more definitive timeline on when the Biden administration would work on TPA. She stopped short of promising work this year but encouraged Brady and other members of Congress to begin to formulate some of their priorities. “Let’s do the work. Let’s do the thinking.”

USMCA enforcement

As Tai stated the importance of the dispute mechanisms in USMCA, many members also called on her to make sure Canada and Mexico live up to the trading promises.

Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, says USTR must make sure American farmers get the access to the markets as entitled under USMCA. An important U.S. tariff-rate quotas case against Canada on dairy remains stalled in the USMCA process.

To the south, Mexico is adopting a host of measures that create restrictions on biotech crops, glyphosate use and food packaging labels, Crapo adds. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., brought up the biotechnology issues during his questioning in the House.

Tai recently held a virtual meeting with the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “I’m very aware of the frustrations of our corn growers with access to Mexico’s market,” Tai says, adding she plans to raise the issue in an upcoming meeting with the USMCA Commission where all three countries get together to discuss issues.

In response to questioning on dairy access to Canadian markets, Tai also says she’s “very keenly aware of how important dairy commitments were to successfully closing out USMCA negotiations. We take these concerns that U.S. dairy industry has extremely seriously."

Stakeholder engagement

As Tai mentioned her meeting with Iowa corn growers, she’s been busy in recent weeks meeting virtually with ag stakeholders.  

She met virtually May 6 with Greg Alber, president of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, and Craig Floss and Grant Menke, respectively the CEO and director of market development of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Tai committed to continuing to monitor Chinese compliance with the structural commitments of the U.S.-China Economic and Trade Agreement as well as the regulatory processes and policies of other trading partners with respect to U.S. corn exports.

Related: Ambassador Tai talks trade with ag groups

The following day she met virtually with Colin Woodall, chief executive officer of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, to discuss ways to resolve issues surrounding country of origin labeling and agriculture’s contributions to meeting the Administration’s sustainability and environmental goals. Tai also committed to monitoring Chinese compliance with the structural commitments of the U.S.-China Economic and Trade Agreement.

Earlier in May, Tai held meetings with the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, National Potato Council, National Milk Producers Federation and the Northwest Horticultural Council. The Ambassador expressed her desire to support U.S. agriculture producers in a worker-centered trade policy and she committed to staying in close communication, according to a readout from USTR.

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