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Ag trade nominee’s plan: ‘Break down the barriers’

Doug McKalip told senators that if he’s confirmed as U.S. chief agricultural negotiator, “it will be my duty to break down the barriers” to U.S. food and ag exports. During a friendly and relatively brief confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee, he pledged to press U.S. trade partners to live up to existing agreements.

“I also look forward to ensuring farmers and ranchers are front and center as USTR [the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative] looks to strengthen our trade relationships, execute new initiatives, and address challenges like China,” said McKalip, a USDA trade adviser since March 2021.

McKalip has spent three decades in the federal government. He was director of the White House Rural Council under President Obama and has held a variety of USDA posts, including acting chief of staff for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during his first stint as agency head. President Biden nominated McKalip for agricultural negotiator last month after his initial choice withdrew from consideration.

Great Britain and Southeast Asia offer the leading opportunities to expand food and ag trade, said McKalip. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, launched in late May, was not the traditional forum for negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA), he said, but trade should be a prominent element in it. “I promise I will fight for full market access in these agreements.”

The United States will continue to press Canada to honor its commitments in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to allow more U.S. access to its dairy market, he said. The United States filed its second USMCA challenge to Canadian dairy import quotas in May.

“This is something we will not let rest,” said McKalip. The Biden administration won its first dispute over Canadian import rules — the first trade complaint filed under the so-called new NAFTA — and said Canada’s revision of those rules is insufficient.

“Obviously, enforcement is very, very important as well as how to negotiate opening up markets,” said Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow, a member of the Finance Committee. “We need markets to be successful.”

Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden echoed Stabenow: “Trade is a two-part exercise” of seeking market access and enforcing agreements. His comments were a rebuttal to arguments by Republican senators that the administration ought to pursue FTAs rather than spend time on “frameworks,” such as the IPEF.

An “FTA … is certainty. It outlives an administration,” said Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma. Executive agreements expire with a change of administration.

Some farm groups have faulted the IPEF as overly vague on ag exports. In a statement, the 13 IPEF members said they would “seek to build high-standard, inclusive, free, and fair trade commitments and develop new and creative approaches in trade and technology policy that advance a broad set of objectives that fuels economic activity and investment, promotes sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and benefits workers and consumers.”

“You’re going to have your hands full,” warned Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican and a former U.S. trade representative, pointing to abundant trade barriers, overt and hidden as food safety standards, around the world.

To watch a video of the hearing, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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