Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who negotiated three free-trade deals set for votes in Congress as soon as tomorrow, said President Barack Obama needs to be more aggressive in seeking trade agreements.
Portman, the U.S. Trade Representative under George W. Bush, said Obama should revive talks with nations in the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas, such as Brazil and Argentina, to boost exports and economic growth. He also urged Obama to work with the European Union to lower tariffs, a step backed by Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
“I am very concerned by the fact that the United States has chosen to take itself out of the game,” Portman said in an interview. “We’re sitting on the sidelines while over 100 bilateral trade negotiations are taking place.”
The agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama were reached under Bush by Portman and his successor, Susan Schwab. The three deals would boost U.S. exports by as much as $12 billion in the first year in which they are in full effect, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Obama has pledged to double U.S. exports by 2015, and his administration is negotiating an accord with eight nations that rim the Pacific. Trade with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam totaled $170 billion last year, according to the Commerce Department. It would be the biggest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
While Portman supports the initiative, he said the U.S. also needs to pursue bilateral deals because such accords offer the opportunity for tariff reductions in the most industries.
The U.S. and Brazil in March established a commission, with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk as co-chairman, to expand trade and remove non-tariff barriers.
Obama spent two years seeking to broaden Democratic support for the three pending accords. He negotiated terms for auto tariffs in the South Korea agreement that won over the United Auto Workers union, an exchange of tax information with Panama and labor-rights assurances from Colombia. Companies from Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) to General Electric Co. (GE) have lobbied for the agreements to increase market access.
Portman predicted the accords will pass.
“My fervent hope is that after a good vote this week the administration will get back in the business of negotiating future agreements,” he said.
The U.S. is scheduled to meet in Cartagena, Colombia, in April with leaders from Latin American nations to discuss regional cooperation and development. Since the collapse of the trade area talks in 2006, the U.S. has strengthened economic ties in the region, implementing agreements with Central American nations, the Dominican Republic and Peru, building on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico that took effect in 1994 and a 2004 pact with Chile.
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