USTR Nominee: Enforcement Top U.S. Trade Priority

March 9, 2009 07:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Ron Kirk comments on sensitive trade issues during nomination hearing

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

The Obama administration will focus first on making sure countries play by trade rules and only second on negotiating new trade deals, U.S. Trade Representative-designee Ron Kirk said on Monday.

"I don't come to this job with deal fever, and we're not going to do deals just for the sake of doing some," Kirk told the Senate Finance Committee at a hearing on his nomination that lasted only around 45 minutes, due to a pending Senate vote.

Kirk did not define the enforcement of trade rules he is seeking. In the past, the U.S. has taken complaints to the World Trade Organization (WTO) for resolution, or demanded in negotiations that other nations buy more US goods. "I know that you want the referees at the [World Trade Organization] to call a foul when the rules are broken. And I agree. The first order of business for the administration on trade is to ensure strong enforcement of the rules,” Kirk said.

He noted that the U.S. would use all its diplomatic tools, including those at the WTO, to pressure China to rely less on exports for its growth and more on domestic demand.

Pending free trade agreements (FTAs) were a major topic during the confirmation hearing.

Kirk promised to work with Congress to try to resolve obstacles blocking three pending Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, and agreed with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that the Panama deal was the closest to possible passage.

Colombia FTA: In a discussion with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Kirk refused to commit to a year-end deadline for resolving concerns about labor violence in Colombia that have blocked approval of the free trade pact with that country.

South Korea FTA: He said the deal with South Korea, as currently written, "is simply unfair." He added that "we are prepared to step away from that" if it is not reworked. Kirk also echoed concerns Obama raised last year about the automotive and other manufacturing provisions of the South Korean agreement and said the deal had to be changed. South Korea has ruled out renegotiating the pact, which cleared a subcommittee of its parliament in February 2009 after opposition legislators boycotted the meeting.

Regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Kirk said he did not expect President Obama's plan to work with Mexico and Canada to update NAFTA would reverse any of the agricultural tariff cuts that have already occurred.

Doha: Kirk said that he looked forward to advancing the Doha Round negotiations "in the right way” and said that one of the first things he would do if confirmed is talk with the European Union on sanitary barriers to trade to make sure the EU is using "sound science” in its food regulations.

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL): Kirk was asked by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) about the implementation of mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL) and Kirk said he would work with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, whom he said "has taken a thoughtful approach” to MCOOL implementation.

Importantly, Kirk said that Obama plans to ask Congress for Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track, which allows a president to get an up or down vote on trade agreements that the administration negotiates. Kirk said that "at an appropriate time and with proper congressional input and concerns addressed,” the administration would ask Congress to grant the president fast-track trade negotiating authority.

Background: Congress gave President George W. Bush the authority, but it lapsed during his second term.

Kirk also said the White House wants to build on labor and environmental standards included in a May 10, 2007, agreement negotiated by the Bush administration and Democratic congressional leaders.

Comments: Kirk's nomination is expected to be approved by the Senate Finance Committee and then the full Senate.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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