A key trade deal between the United States and 11 other countries is close to completion, but hinges on the president having trade promotion authority, a national wheat industry leader says.
Washtucna, Wash., wheat farmer Brett Blankenship, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, attended a White House briefing for commodity group leaders with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Darci Vetter, chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, to discuss trade promotion authority for the president to strengthen Vetter’s hand in finishing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The TPP is a trade pact between the United States, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam and Vietnam. It would eliminate tariffs and give U.S. wheat a level playing field in established markets such as Japan and emerging markets such as Vietnam and Indonesia, wheat industry representatives say.
Under trade promotion authority, Congress defines U.S. negotiating objectives and spells out a detailed oversight and consultation process for negotiations, according to the trade representative’s office. At the end of the negotiations, Congress then gives the agreement an up-or-down vote without amending it.
“The other parties that are in negotiations have a tendency to not want to give up anything unless they are negotiating with the actual decision-maker,” Blankenship said. “They don’t want to tip their hand and then have Congress ask for more at a later stage, they want to negotiate with the ambassador to finish up the trade deal.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said there is bipartisan support in the House for giving the president the authority.
“It is important we pave the way for the best trade deals possible,” she said.
Many in Congress want to ensure strong congressional oversight, so that the president moves ahead with congressional approval each step of the way, she said.
NAWG believes all presidents should have trade promotion authority. The authority would extend beyond the current administration, Blankenship said.
“It’s just important that the chief executive of the United States has that authority,” he said. “We need to not focus on partisan bickering, we need to focus on establishing the right policy framework to move the peg forward on trade.”
However, the subject is controversial among those on the far-right and far-left of the political spectrum, said Alexis Taylor, deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.
“Trade promotion authority is going to be hard to pass,” she said.
The important thing to remember, Blankenship said, is that trade deals will happen whether or not the TPP is successful.
“The only question is, will America get to be in the lead?” he said.
Countries like Vietnam and Malaysia are growing quickly and have an expanding middle class that presents an opportunity for U.S. agricultural products, said Taylor.
However, Australia competes “head-to-head” with the U.S. in many products, so without a trade deal, the position of domestic farmers is undercut, she said.
Farmers in the U.S. would benefit from lower tariffs and import standards that are science-based, Taylor said.
It’s better for the United States to be taking the lead in negotiating for fair trade and open access, the environment or human rights and labor issues, rather than China, Blankenship said. China has proposed a separate Pacific Rim trade treaty.
“This is a win-win for the entire economy and will put America at the head of the table, so that a trade agreement can be negotiated to lift the rest of the world to our values and expectations,” he said.
While environmental and labor issues were an “afterthought” in trade negotiations 20 years ago, they’re now central to such agreements, said Taylor.
NAWG will lobby Congress on the importance of TPP, Blankenship said.
McMorris Rodgers expects movement in the House or Senate regarding TPP in the next few weeks.
She believes TPP has bipartisan support to move forward. Republicans and Democrats recognize trade benefits the economy, and Washington is the most trade-dependent state, she said.
“There’s a recognition that these trade agreements are needed quite often so we can reduce tariffs and open up new markets,” she said.
There isn’t an exact timeline for the TPP to be concluded, but Blankenship said the current political climate is “perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance” for a bipartisan effort to provide the president with trade promotion authority.
“We should not take this opportunity lightly and not let it pass us by,” he said. “Usually trade promotion authority votes are quite close, and if we can move on it shortly, the odds are in our favor.”
Mateusz Perkowski of Capital Press contributed to this report.