U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk appeared before lawmakers today to discuss a loaded trade agenda. Hoping to build on recently passed, very long overdue free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, Kirk discussed implementation of those agreements and continued efforts to increase exports and create jobs.
Senators questioned Kirk on a range of trade issues from local concerns over chickens and footwear to Chinese intellectual property rights violations.
As Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) pointed out, exports represent “14 percent of GDP,” and free trade initiatives can be a valuable tool for job creation. Nearly all members of the Senate Finance Committee seemed to echo those sentiments and gave Kirk a considerable amount of credit for the handling of the President’s trade agenda. The only truly divisive issue arose over Russia’s entry into the WTO and Kirk’s insistence that Congress should repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a relic of the Cold War.
While Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) seemed largely supportive of the initiative to normalize trade relations, ranking member Hatch expressed some degree of concern, particularly over Russia’s history of corruption and poor human rights.
Kirk, however, was insistent that by extending the benefits of normal trade relations, the U.S. will be able to hold Russia accountable for trade violations through the WTO. He maintained that the United States really has no real alternative.
Apart from the issue of Russian trade relations, the hearing today offered some insight into the trade outlook for the rest of the legislative session and beyond. While implementing the free-trade agreements already passed, the Obama Administration will seek to finish negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including the potential to incorporate other countries into the multilateral trade agreement including Mexico and Canada.
Hatch pushed Kirk on jump-starting negotiations on a new TPA, or law to fast-track negotiating authority on trade agreements, since the previous one has since expired. The administration also reaffirmed its commitment to seek solutions to trade violations from the EU to China.
While disagreements existed, most members seemed united in promoting a trade agenda that works to expand the market for U.S. exports and help produce jobs here in the United States. Following the passage of the three trade agreements last year, perhaps trade can again function not as a wedge issue, but as an area of bipartisan consensus to boost the economy. Congress should not delay.