Trade Pacts Should Help With Export Goal

The Obama administration is stepping up its pursuit of free trade agreements, but not fast enough to satisfy some Republicans. The White House has cautiously embraced trade talks as a way to boost exports and create jobs.

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The Obama administration has its hands full with another sensitive international issue: free trade agreements. But this one is sensitive here at home, where Americans have grown far more skeptical of the benefits of free trade. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The administration plans to submit its new trade agreement with South Korea to Congress for approval within the next few weeks, and officials hope the Senate will ratify it later this spring. The administration is also starting to move forward on two other long-stalled trade deals, with Panama and Colombia. They were negotiated during the Bush administration but never acted on by the Democratic Congress.

U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk told the House Ways and Means Committee he's sending a team of negotiators to Colombia next week.

Mr. RON KIRK (U.S. Trade Representative): The president has directed me to immediately intensify our engagement with our partners in Colombia and Panama with the objective of resolving the outstanding issues as soon as possible this year.

HORSLEY: Most of those outstanding issues revolve around labor rights. Kirk says both Panama and Colombia have made progress in that area but that more needs to be done before President Obama signs off on the deals. Republicans on the committee are not satisfied with the administration's timetable.

Texas Congressman Sam Johnson grilled Kirk over what's taking so long.

Representative SAM JOHNSON (Republican, Texas): We're spinning our wheels. I'd like to know why we're delaying, because other nations in the world are taking our place in the trade environment.

HORSLEY: Congressman Johnson and Ambassador Kirk share Texas roots. Kirk notes it's not just residents of the Lone Star State who have to be sold on the deals.

Mr. KIRK: Texas is the number one exporting state in the country, so you don't need to convince me how important these agreements would be to our economy. But when I raised my hand and took that oath, I agreed to be United States trade representative for the entire country. My wife is from Detroit, and so I brought with me not just our passion for exports that we have in Texas, but I also brought with me the concern and frustration of all of my in-laws. In Detroit, in Cleveland, in Pittsburgh, they believe they haven't benefited from trade.

HORSLEY: Even among Republicans, support for free trade agreements has fallen sharply in the last decade. Dartmouth economist Matthew Slaughter, who studies the politics of globalization, says regaining that trust will not be easy.

Professor MATTHEW SLAUGHTER (Dartmouth University): Policymakers and economists can talk about the benefits of trade in the abstract, but I think what a lot of Americans are waiting to see is some tangible evidence of that. The best way to do it would be some meaningful trade agreements that help gain greater access for American workers to participate in a lot of economic growth in the rest of the world.

HORSLEY: The White House says by driving a hard bargain with South Korea, it was able to win greater access to that market for U.S. carmakers. Both automakers and the UAW have endorsed the deal. Kirk hopes to win similarly broad support for future trade agreements, in effect persuading everyone's in-laws there's something in it for them.

Mr. KIRK: What the American public care about is jobs. One, we've got to do a better job of articulating to the public how when we provide opportunities for Americans to sell what we make, grow, produce around the world, that can help create jobs here.

HORSLEY: Kirk says otherwise without new trade agreements it would be difficult for President Obama to meet his five-year goal of doubling U.S. exports.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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