Exports matter more than ever. They account for almost 13 percent of all U.S. output--the highest rate of productivity since the government started keeping track during Herbert Hoover’s administration.
“To an extent unique in post-World War II history, the U.S. economy’s climb out of recession has been led by selling crops, natural resources, and manufactured goods to the rest of the world,” reported the Wall Street Journal last week.
Here’s the really good news: Exports can do even better, especially if Washington gives itself the proper tools.
So when our economy is in the dumps, why aren’t our lawmakers trying to push this dynamic sector to make additional gains, helping it build upon the considerable momentum that it has already achieved?
Politics deserves the blame. President Obama has called for doubling exports by 2015--a worthy goal, but the White House hasn’t done nearly enough to seek congressional approval of pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Members of Congress are divided. Republicans say they’re for the agreements, but they want to vote on them all at once. Many Democrats either won’t vote for any of them or insist that they come up for a vote one at a time.
The result is partisan paralysis. Nothing gets done.
I don’t understand the squabbling. Ranchers like me, who are a part of the export economy, don’t care if these trade agreements go through all at once or piece by piece. They just need to go through, so we can continue to grow our businesses, hire new workers, and help the U.S. economy crawl out of its doldrums.
Our recent success with exports won’t go on forever, especially if Washington continues to dither. Global pressures will see to that. Foreign customers are finding it harder to purchase American-made goods. Unrest in the Middle East has pushed up fuel costs. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have disrupted supply chains--and although there’s a chance we’ll see our exports to this devastated country rise, the government in Tokyo appears to be pulling back from plans to join the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, which would lower tariffs.
Korean lawmakers are fed up with American indecision on trade. They wanted to finish the trade deal three years ago. Upon Obama’s insistence, they renegotiated elements of it last fall. Now they’ve said they won’t take any more steps to complete the pact until Congress acts.
This speaks to a deeper problem, which is that other countries won’t even start trade talks with the United States. It isn’t worth their time--not when they can start and finish deals with our competitors while Washington bickers and delays.
Let’s say you want to hire a company for a small job, such as a carpet installation for your home. What would you do if you worked out the price--only to be told that the installers will need at least three years to get to your job and that even then they may renegotiate its terms?
This is how we’ve treated the Colombians, Panamanians, and Koreans.
We have to get serious about exports--and somebody in Washington needs to think creatively about pushing for trade.
Perhaps congressional Republicans could make the first move: They could vote to give Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to the president. This act of goodwill would signal their sincere interest in helping Obama meet his export goal and also let the world know that the United States is committed to trade talks.
TPA is a tool. It gives the president the power to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to up-or-down votes before Congress. Unfortunately, politicians have treated it as a political football. In the 1990s, a Republican Congress let it expire under President Clinton. More recently, a Democratic Congress let it expire under President Bush.
This is silly. The president should have TPA and he should have it permanently. Obama hasn’t sought it, but if congressional Republicans were to give it to him anyway, there could be no mistaking that they mean to help America’s export economy. And Obama would have no excuse not to negotiate new agreements.
It certainly would be a good first step. Somebody in Washington needs to take it.
Carol Keiser owns and manages cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Western Illinois. Keiser is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member.