By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
PHOENIX (DTN) -- Following a theme he's revisited throughout his tenure as agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack is effectively working as the White House's legislative whip trying to drum up support for Trade Promotion Authority.
Every speech and every appearance eventually touches on getting Congress to quickly authorize Trade Promotion Authority so the White House can close the deal on the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA, locks in demands by Congress in the negotiations, but prevents Congress from trying to alter a trade deal once it is presented to them for an up or down vote.
On Friday, Vilsack held a press call with a pair of former ag secretaries to make the case for TPA and then talked about the importance of trade when he addressed roughly 2,000 farmers and agricultural industry leaders at Commodity Classic in downtown Phoenix.
Unlike the reluctant Republicans that Vilsack sought to sway in bringing a farm bill to a vote, Vilsack this time faces reluctant Democrats who are listening to labor unions and environmental groups that have pushed opposition to TPA and the Pacific pact.
In a brief interview with DTN, Vilsack rejected the idea that the administration is challenged on trade because of the lack of transparency on the talks and the trade pact. The secretary said members of Congress have had 1,800 briefings on the Pacific negotiations. He also noted lawmakers have the authority to review the text of the trade deal if they wish. "So there has been plenty of transparency," Vilsack said.
"Congress is the elected representatives of the people," Vilsack added. "It's their job to know what's being negotiated and have access to the text."
Comparing it to a collective-bargaining negotiation, Vilsack said a labor union would never put out all of the details of such talks so the public could opine on it. Once a negotiation is done, then union members have the right to look at the final deal and decide on it.
"That's precisely the same process we're using here," Vilsack said. "The elected representatives have access to all of the information and all the briefings that they would ever want to have. They get the opportunity to have an up or down vote and there is plenty of time between when the negotiations are concluded and the time for the up or down vote.
"I think it's an argument reality. I don't think it's persuasive," Vilsack told DTN.
Nonetheless, lack of transparency and secrecy about the Trans Pacific Partnership are mantras on social media and on op-ed pages by opponents of the deal. There is a vocal element challenging the closed process of trade talks and details on the pact. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., railed on the potential agreement in an op-ed piece on Friday in the Washington Post. She called the TPP draft "a closely guarded draft." Warren then criticized language she believes helps multi-national corporations while undermining the sovereignty of the U.S. Warren, an influential senator among liberals, is clearly not in the president's camp on TPP. http://dld.bz/…
Vilsack held a press call early Friday to highlight that a bipartisan group of eight former ag secretaries going back to 1977 signed a letter on Friday asking Congress to pass Trade Promotion Authority. He then took the message to the farm audience for the trade associations of corn, soybeans, wheat and sorghum -- almost all of whom understand the importance of trade to their commodities.
"These former secretaries understand what I understand which is the importance and significance of agricultural exports to the agricultural economy and this country," Vilsack said on the press call.
The secretary reiterated that every president since Gerald Ford has had at least some length of time with authorized Trade Promotion Authority.
About 30% of all agricultural sales are export-related. Also, agricultural export jobs pay 18% higher than non-export jobs, Vilsack said.
In the next 15 years, Asia will see 2.7 billion consumers move into the middle class, boosting their own desires for better diets. "That's a tremendous market opportunity for us," Vilsack said.
The Obama administration states a fully-implemented Trans Pacific Partnership would boost exports nationally by $122 billion. Since agriculture represents 9% of all exports now, that translates into about $11 billion in expanded ag trade. The percentage of U.S. agriculture to other exported products has risen to 9% from 6.6% since 2000.
Vilsack also continues to reiterate that if the U.S. fails to close the deal on the Pacific pact, then the U.S. essentially cedes more influence to China in the Pacific Rim. He notes critics worried about high standards for labor and environment should not expect the same kind of standards that would be expected in the TPP now.
"I think the answer is fairly clear that you want the U.S. to be engaged in this market and in any effort to write a high standards agreement," Vilsack said.
With Vilsack on the Friday morning call were Ann Veneman and Dan Glickman. Veneman, who was agriculture secretary during President George W. Bush's first term, reiterated Vilsack's message. "Trade agreements are essential to expand agricultural exports," Veneman said. She added, "Trade Promotion Authority is essential for that to happen."
Glickman, who served under President Bill Clinton and also was a congressman from Kansas, noted there is a bipartisan mix of both support and opposition to Trade Promotion Authority. He called the effort to get TPA done "a tough row to hoe" but a necessary one nonetheless.
"Agriculture is more dependent on trade than any other segment of the American economy," Glickman said. "American farmers live and die based on what and how they can sell their products overseas."
Glickman added it was important for Democrats to get on board. "We have got to get a big chunk of Democrats to vote for this bill to get it passed," he said.
The administration right now is having problems with Democrats, particularly in the Senate, who want to add provisions that might allow Congress to vote to strip TPA from an agreement, effectively undercutting the purpose of the bill. Vilsack said TPA ensures Congress is engaged from the outset on a trade deal and defines items of importance. But TPA needs to empower the White House to negotiate a deal that won't be changed after the fact by lawmakers.
"Congress has the right to accept or reject, and it seems to me that right to accept or reject is a pretty doggone important one," Vilsack said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.
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