Published on: 14:24PM Nov 04, 2010
By Carol Keiser – Belleair, Florida (www.truthabouttrade.org)
A few poll-watching pundits have claimed recently that Americans are turning their backs on free trade. You sure wouldn’t know it from this week’s election results. The next Congress, when it meets in January, almost certainly will be more supportive of economic engagement with the world than the outgoing Congress has been.
The poster child of this welcome trend may be Rob Portman, Ohio’s senator-elect. This former U.S. trade representative in the Bush administration carried his union-heavy state by a comfortable margin, 57 percent to 39 percent.
“The people have spoken forcefully and clearly,” said Portman at his victory party on Tuesday night.
Many have interpreted the 2010 elections as a political defeat for President Obama. In at least one area, however, the results may help Obama achieve one of his stated policy objectives: approval of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
It’s time to quit the drama and get the deal done.
We’ve waited long enough. Discussions started in 2006, when Portman was a trade diplomat. They concluded under his successor but Congress never acted on the agreement, which now has languished for years--to the frustration of just about everybody who tries to sell goods and services abroad, and especially among ranchers who see Korea as an excellent market for beef exports.
As a presidential candidate, Obama campaigned against a trade accord with Korea. But confronting the burden of leadership during an economic crisis--and attracted to the potential of an export-fueled recovery--Obama changed his mind in the White House. “We will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea,” he said in his State of the Union address last January.
Ever since, American and Korean officials have tried to iron out a few key differences. They were at it as recently as last week in San Francisco. Additional talks are scheduled. There’s a sudden sense of urgency because Obama travels to Seoul next week for the G-20 summit--an ideal forum for announcing a consensus.
Obama has said that he would like to submit a Korean free-trade agreement to Congress early next year. If he does, approval wouldn’t represent merely an economic victory but a political one as well. Americans will expect Obama and the new Congress, with its Republican-controlled House, to work in bipartisan fashion for the benefit of the country. Early passage of a trade pact with Korea would demonstrate a mutual commitment to this principle.
It would also benefit the United States for reasons that have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with economics. South Korea is one of the world’s great emerging nations--a country of nearly 50 million people and increasing prosperity. We cannot afford to ignore these potential customers, especially if we’re to meet Obama’s goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015.
We simply won’t get there without an agreement. Korean leaders understand that their country’s economic future depends on their ability to trade goods and services with the rest of the world. They’re in the process of lowering trade barriers with all of America’s competitors as they negotiate trade agreements with the European Union, Japan, and the Mercosur nations of Latin America.
Australia is also in the mix. For ranchers in the United States, this is a special concern because our beef-producing friends Down Under are on the verge of gaining a tariff advantage of nearly 3 percent over the next 15 years. This would cripple our ability to sell American-raised meat to grocery-store shoppers in Seoul. We stand to lose an enormous amount of business--I hesitate to think of what Washington’s failure to act will cost the industry.
This is about far more than beef, of course. Americans in all economic sectors will gain from improved access to the South Korean market. The simple elimination of South Korean tariffs--a key provision of the agreement--will boost our GDP by as much as $12 billion annually, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
The mid-term elections are yesterday’s news. The time for playing politics is over--and the time for seizing this historic opportunity is uponus.
Carol Keiser owns and manages cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Western Illinois. Mrs. Keiser is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member. (www.truthabouttrade.org)