A measure that would give President Barack Obama broad powers on trade deals will pass Congress, helping negotiators overcome obstacles tied to rice and bioengineered foods in two pending agreements, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack predicted.
“Every trade agreement ultimately comes down to agricultural issues,” Vilsack said Monday in a meeting with Bloomberg editors and reporters. “So you have to be very conscious of making sure that whatever agreement you enter into does provide more market access.”
At the meeting in Washington, Vilsack also said government spending on the bird flu outbreak may exceed $500 million and that the virus may surge again in the fall.
The proposed multination trade agreements for the Pacific and in Europe are stuck on farm issues, among other things. In Asia, Japanese rice farmers are reluctant to open their market, while the European Union is frustrating negotiators over biotechnology issues.
Obama has sought from Congress the power to ratify trade deals on an up-or-down vote without amendments. The Senate passed a fast-track bill in May, and Republican House Speaker John Boehner has suggested his chamber could vote on bill this month. Obama has said he wants the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal approved using the process.
The fast-track powers would buttress U.S. negotiators in seeking access to foreign markets, knowing an accord won’t be upended by Congress, Vilsack said.
Vilsack said Asia, with more than 525 million middle-class consumers, represents a key market for exports, including agriculture companies.
“People are persuaded by the market opportunities that exist in Asia,” Vilsack said. “I think the president will be successful” in persuading wavering lawmakers to support so- called trade promotion authority, he said.
Obama’s trade agenda is backed mostly by Republicans, while many Democrats oppose deals, citing previous agreements that labor unions blame for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. Vilsack said supporters need to better explain benefits of trade to Americans, who often see negative results.
“It’s easier to market the negative impact of a plant closing” than it is the smaller, incremental job gains that companies get from exports, Vilsack said. “That’s what’s been good about this debate. It’s begun to educate Americans generally about the importance of trade.”
Vilsack said an Asian agreement would follow quickly after Congress passes fast-track authority, spurred by potential economic gains and a desire that the U.S., not China, play a key role in setting environmental and labor standards in the region. He also said legislation also would help complete a separate deal with the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
In both negotiations, agricultural issues are unresolved, he said.
Vilsack also said government spending on fighting the worst U.S. bird flu outbreak and compensate farmers for their losses will exceed the $410 million so far budgeted and may top a half- billion dollars.
“We need to be very prepared for this to reassert itself in the fall,” Vilsack said.
About 45 million turkeys and chickens, including more than 10 percent of the country’s laying hens, have been wiped out by the spread of avian influenza across the Midwest. Iowa, the top U.S. egg producer, has been hardest-hit. To make up for the loss of eggs sold in liquid form to food manufacturers, buyers are snapping up consumer-grade fresh eggs packed for groceries, driving costs higher.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said that bird flu, along with crop and animal maladies such as citrus greening that hurt Florida oranges and the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that killed hog herds last year, underscore a need for Congress to approve more long-term spending for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to manage emerging threats.
“Those three, just alone, are significant issues for each of those components of our agricultural economy,” Vilsack said. “You’ve cut to the bone here, and you need to understand the necessity of increasing the USDA budget.”