LIANE HANSEN, host:
While the housing sector's troubles continue to drag down the economy, manufacturers are moving forward. One big reason: exports. U.S. companies are selling more and more of their goods overseas. And now business groups are stepping up the pressure on Congress and the White House to open more foreign markets to U.S. companies.
Here to talk about all of this is NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Welcome back, Marilyn.
MARILYN GEEWAX: Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: Why is trade policy getting so much attention?
GEEWAX: Well, the one thing everyone in America wants right now is jobs, and exports are helping create some jobs. Employers who are tied to the domestic economy, and especially that housing sector, are still in so much trouble you're just not seeing any job growth for carpenters, realtors, mortgage brokers, things like that. But U.S. manufacturing has been growing at about three times the rate of rest of the economy.
We've got foreign customers who want to buy our airplanes, pharmaceuticals, cotton, computers, all kinds of goods.
So, just last week, the federal government released the data for November and it showed exports were up for the third straight month to about $160 billion. That means President Obama is going to push hard for increases in exports. And he's set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015.
HANSEN: Well, what is the administration doing to make this happen?
GEEWAX: Well, here's one example. Last week, the U.S. Export-Import Bank said that it would launch an effort to identify about 5,000 small businesses and help them get loans they need to boost their ability to export. And the bank recently got some attention by announcing it would help Pakistan get financing to purchase 150 locomotives made by General Electric in Erie, Pennsylvania.
So, now when the new Congress is settling in, the White House is going to push for approval for free trade agreements, also called FTAs, that have already been worked out with other countries.
HANSEN: What does the business community say about this?
GEEWAX: Well, last week I went to hear the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's annual State of American Business address. Tom Donohue, the Chamber's president, was emphatic about the need for these FTAs. Here's what he said.
Mr. TOM DONOHUE (President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): The administration must work urgently with the new Congress to approve the South Korean and Colombian and Panama agreements. We will pull out all the stops we can to help the administration get the votes to pass these bills.
GEEWAX: Liane, you know, the chamber is pretty good at getting what it wants when it decides to pull out all the stops.
HANSEN: Yeah, but where do these free trade agreements stand in Congress?
GEEWAX: The White House is describing the South Korea deal as one of its top legislative priorities. And just the other day, the U.S. trade representative, Ron Kirk, said the administration would get this agreement completed in the first half of this year.
This deal really matters to a lot of U.S. companies because South Korea is a huge market. It already imports about a quarter of a trillion dollars' worth of manufactured goods. And it's not just about goods. A lot of U.S. companies want to sell South Koreans their services, and those are banks and software companies. And farmers, too, they want to get this agreement because it'd make it easier to sell beef and corn and pork and soybeans and all kinds of things to South Korea.
So, if Congress approves it, it would be by far the biggest trade deal that we've had since the North American Free Trade Agreement - that was NAFTA - in 1994.
HANSEN: Well, Marilyn, if business interests are for it and President Obama supports it, then it should pass, right?
GEEWAX: Well, it may sound like this is a slam dunk given that combination of support, but trade deals are always controversial because trade works in two directions. They can help but they can hurt.
The United Auto Workers supports this deal because they hope they'll be able to sell more vehicles in that big market. But the AFL-CIO, it's opposed because so many union members, especially steel workers, fear that the trade deals always end up hurting the U.S. workers.
But, you know, given that the tech community, the Chamber of Commerce, the United Auto Workers are all behind the agreement, I think most people bet that the administration will get its way on this.
GEEWAX: NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Thanks as always, Marilyn.
HANSEN: You're welcome, Liane.
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