By Tim Burrack: Arlington, Iowa
Late is better than never: President Obama finally has requested that Congress grant him Trade Promotion Authority, a power he should have requested long ago.
The United States simply cannot pursue an effective trade agenda without a president who has the ability to bargain with other countries and send each proposed trade deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote.
"Such authority will guide current and future negotiations, and will thus support a jobs-focused trade agenda," says a new report from the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Now Congress must do its part and approve TPA as soon as possible. Democratic senator Max Baucus of Montana and Republican congressman Dave Camp of Michigan are already working on the legislation.
And instead of giving TPA an expiration date, as in the past, they ought to propose making TPA permanent. That way, our country’s trade policy won’t fall hostage so easily to partisan bickering.
Congress not only has the right but also the duty to oversee U.S. trade practices. What it absolutely should not do, however, is try to tamper with trade diplomacy. Our partners want to negotiate with a single entity: the U.S. trade representative, acting on behalf of the president. They don’t want to haggle with 535 members of the House and Senate.
Bad things happen when Congress gets too involved in trade policy. We’re seeing the expensive results right now in a maddening new controversy over ractopamine, a feed additive that helps livestock produce lean meat.
Ractopamine is safe, widely accepted, and approved by all of the appropriate U.S. and international regulatory agencies. Farmers like me have been using it for years in cattle and hogs. It helps us supply good lean, healthy meat that consumers ask for at affordable prices.
Last month, however, Russia decided to block imports of U.S. meat from animals treated with ractopamine. Moscow claims a scientific rationale for its ban, but its real motive is retaliation: It seeks revenge against members of Congress who have tried to pressure Russia on its human-rights abuses in return for its support as a member of the World Trade Organization and preferred trading status with the U.S.
Let’s not kid ourselves about the situation in Russia. Freedom House, a non-profit watchdog group, classifies that nation as "not free." Its people lack civil liberties that most Americans and other Westerners take for granted.
Who pays the price for Russia’s sins? Not Russian oppressors, but American farmers. In the wake of Russia’s ractopamine retaliation, we’ve seen hog prices plummet. They fell even further when China followed Russia’s lead, for its own geopolitical purposes.
The actions of Russia and China have cost American meat producers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost exports this year. I’m already feeling the financial squeeze here in Iowa.
This is an unnatural disaster for America’s heartland. It’s like an anti-stimulus bill that sucks the economic life from a vital sector. To make matters worse, ordinary Russians aren’t any better off.
The impulse to help Russians is a good one. As Congress tried to put its idealism into practice, however, it gave birth to a painful unintended consequence. Because of congressional meddling, American farmers now suffer from the sorry state of human rights in Russia. It almost defies logic.
Yet it provides a powerful illustration of why the president needs TPA. Without it, trade agreements get bogged down in the minutiae of congressional agendas over everything from labor conditions to the environment.
TPA preserves the ability of Congress to accept or reject trade pacts, but it also gives the executive branch the authority to reach sensible deals that will create jobs and boost exports.
It’s an indispensable tool for achieving consensus on common objectives.
President Obama has ambitious trade goals for his second term. He has committed himself to a huge increase in exports between now and 2015. He hopes to complete the Trans Pacific Partnership, a big round of talks that could improve trade ties between the United States and Pacific Rim nations, most notably Japan. The President also has pledged to push for a trade agreement with Europe--a deal that promises to jump start economies on both sides of the Atlantic.
In asking for TPA, President Obama has taken a very important and necessary step. Now Congress must act and approve TPA permanently—for this president and the ones to follow.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.orgFollow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.