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Trade Agreements Still Face Hurdles

Commodity group leaders were pleased a week ago when committees in the House and Senate approved legislation that would grant Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to the Obama Administration. It’s considered an essential first step to getting trade agreements through Congress, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that Administration negotiators are working on right now. 

Neither the full House not Senate have voted on the TPA bill yet and key leaders who met with North American Agricultural Journalists this week show why passage of the TPA isn’t certain.

When asked whether the bill will make it through the Senate, that body’s Agriculture Committee Chairman, Pat Roberts of Kansas, told that “It’s too soon to tell.”

“I think a lot of it depends on the President and whether or not he’s able to allay some of the fears that people have with regards to trade,” Roberts said, referring to opposition from labor unions and other groups close to Democratic members of Congress.

Agriculture’s role in the negotiations is important, even if it’s difficult, Roberts told NAAJ, which held its annual meeting in Washington, DC earlier this week.

“I can’t say whether I’m overly optimistic. I am more optimistic with regards to where we were about a month ago,” he said, when Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) cancelled a hearing in his Finance Committee on the trade bill over disagreements with the ranking Democrat, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.  

“We need fast track and we need to get moving,” Roberts said.

One example of possible Democratic opposition is Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson is a fiscally conservative “Blue Dog Democrat,” who has been more willing to reach compromises with Republican representatives than many members of his party. 

Peterson told and NAAJ that he hasn’t decided whether or not to support TPA and that he’s still talking with Michael Froman, the U.S. Trade Representative and others about it.

Peterson wants to see some long-standing agricultural trade issues resolved in the TPP negotiations first, such as better access into the Japanese market for U.S. rice and beef. 

“I think that’s maybe doable from what I’m hearing,” he said.

“The bigger issue is the Canadian situation,” he said. “We have to address this problem that was caused in Nafta. If we don’t do it in this agreement, it will never get done. So that’s kind of my bottom line.”

Peterson said he opposed Nafta (the North American Free Trade Agreement) because he thought it would hurt sugar beet producers and dairy farmers in his own district. He said Nafta has not been good for either industry and that it still puts U.S. dairy farmers at a disadvantage. Some high tariffs on U.S. milk going into Canada remain and profitable Canadian dairy co-ops are buying up U.S. milk processing, he said.

Canadians recently have told Peterson they won’t negotiate with the U.S. on the TPP until Congress passes TPA and they won’t negotiate until near the end of the agreement talks.  

“I think the Canadian government will fall if they negotiate a deal on supply management on dairy and poultry,” Peterson said.  Both Canadian industries are still protected from U.S. trade under Nafta. Canada will have a national election in October. Peterson said ending Canada’s tariff’s on imported eggs and dairy products would likely undermine that nation’s supply management systems for egg and milk production.  

“If there’s not a Canadian deal, I’m voting no,” Peterson said.

“I still haven’t gotten a bottom line answer from Froman and the Administration,” Peterson said, on whether or not Canadian concessions are likely under the TPP.

An Administration official said on background this week that negotiators still haven’t gotten a formal offer from Canada but “we are looking to conclude these talks in the coming weeks.” The Administration expects Canada to negotiate on eggs and dairy. 

Meanwhile, some leaders in Congress have said the votes on TPA in the House and Senate are likely to come up early next month.




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