Congress wrestles with trade issue

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WASHINGTON – Consideration of Trade Promotion Authority, formerly known as fast-track negotiating authority, continues on again and off again wrangling in the U.S. Senate.

The House gave its approval last December, although by a narrow 215-214 vote.

“If we don’t cut the deals, other countries will, and are,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. “They’re not going to wait for the United States.”

“I’m for getting to the table so we could negotiate,” DeWine said, speaking to Ohio Farm Bureau leaders at a breakfast on Capitol Hill March 13.

The trade authority gives the president the authority to negotiate international trade agreements subject to Congressional approval, but not open to Congressional amendments. Previous trade promotion authority expired in 1994.

Senate debate. The Senate would also link the legislation, H.R. 3005, to Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program created by Congress in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement and also awaiting reauthorization.

Trade Adjustment Assistance helps U.S. workers adversely affected by imports or by a production shift to trading partners. The program provides extended unemployment benefits and job training to workers and technical assistance to businesses impacted by foreign trade.

Some sources say the Senate will hold passage of Trade Promotion Authority hostage to provisions that make income maintenance under the trade adjustment assistance programs available for two years instead of one, offers wage insurance to compensate for income lost through moving to lower-paying jobs, and provides a 75 percent subsidy of displaced workers’ health insurance payments.

The Farm Bureau supports H.R. 3005, saying U.S. agriculture depends on exports for more than one-third of its sales and citing fiscal year 2001 statistics, during which the United States exported $52.7 billion in agricultural goods and imported $39 billion.

Complex issue. The United States and other countries are entering a new round of world trade negotiations through the World Trade Organization. But negotiating free trade is not an easy task.

“It’s a very complex issue,” U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula told a delegation of Ohio Farm Bureau volunteer leaders visiting his Capitol Hill office March 12. “It’s not easy to get the field level.”

“I’ve watched the Mexico-Canada thing and it hasn’t produced great results,” Regula said. “I don’t think the Trade Promotion Authority will be a panacea for our problems. There’s more to it than just agriculture.”

“Why have it? The presidents like to have authority. They hate to bother with us (Congress),” Regula said. “I think these things are all overstated.”

Trade and aid. But DeWine said “trade and aid” can target countries to increase homeland security. “We can stop some of this ferment by being more proactive,” DeWine said.

Over in the House, California Democratic lawmaker Cal Dooley agreed. “The only way it’s going to get better is to get back into negotiations,” Dooley told Ohio farm leaders last week. “We’ve got to keep trying to find ways to expand access to markets.”

Inequities. There is an 12 percent average tariff rate on imports, DeWine said, compared to a 62 percent average tariff on agricultural goods exported from the United States.

He claims the European Union subsidizes its exports of dairy, wheat, meats and grains $6 billion, compared to the United States’ $130 million.

Wayne County Farm Bureau president David Dotterer agreed with DeWine on trade. “If you’d have more equal tariffs, we could be a lot more competitive with other countries,” Dotterer said. “That’s the only way we’re going to improve our commodity prices. That’s our big opportunity.

“It’s equally as important as domestic policy.”

American Farm Bureau Federation’s Audrae Erickson said a lot is at stake in trade right now.

“Agriculture can’t afford to wait,” she said. “It’s that simple; it’s that stark.”

Lee Kellogg, Ashtabula County Farm Bureau president, worries, however, that free trade still may not necessarily be fair trade. Speaking with Rep. Steve LaTourette’s assistant Terry McNaughton, Kellogg said, “Certainly if it isn’t fair – and it hasn’t been fair in the past – we don’t want it.”

Whether or not the president gets Trade Promotion Authority, or whether or not the farm bill gets passed this year, the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, an ag economics think tank at land-grant universities, estimates that in the first year of the farm bill, the United States would have to take action to reduce spending on farm programs to ensure the United States would not exceed the World Trade Organization limits on farm subsidies.

Supporters of granting Trade Promotion Authority are most business groups and the agricultural industry, except for some import-sensitive industries such as citrus, textile and steel. Opposing the bill are labor and environmental groups.

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