Vilsack says trade pacts can proceed before "Fast-Track" authority

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 25, 2014 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is rejecting suggestions that the Obama administration should be pushing Congress to pass so-called “fast-track” Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) for the president before trying to complete major trade agreements with the European Union and nations along the Pacific Rim.

In an interview in his Washington office on Tuesday, Vilsack said there are two ways to go about getting Congress to restore the president's Trade Promotion Authority, which lawmakers have granted to every administration since 1974. TPA allows a president to reach a trade deal - after consultation with Congress on goals and priorities - which would be subject only to an up or down vote, without amendments.

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“You can talk about it,” he said, and “hope eventually Congress gets to a point where they actually want to get something done. But, how has that been working for us so far?” he asked rhetorically.

“Or, you can say, maybe the better thing to do is to focus on trying to get an agreement that has opportunities, benefits and definable advancements of product lines. And then say to Congress, ‘Here's an opportunity that is awaiting your approval, but as a precursor to that we need Trade Promotion Authority so that we are not in a situation of unraveling a very delicate balance that we have stuck.'”

“It seems to me, given the current political climate, given the fact that a lot of folks don't necessarily want this president to succeed, that providing a concrete trade agreement is a better approach to try to get trade promotion authority,” Vilsack told Agri-Pulse. That way, a president could “avoid 535 folks deciding they could get a better deal.”

The administration is currently deep into negotiations on two separate treaties that are aimed at creating the world's biggest free-trade zones: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP, with the nations of the European Union, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with 11 other Asian Pacific countries.

Last week, Vilsack traveled to Europe to discuss issues involved in the T-TIP talks. But he rejected a suggestion that the mission was about “outcomes,” saying it was meant to develop relationships that may eventually ease the way for the treaty down the road, and to try to clear up some misconceptions about American agriculture.

“There is the belief that some folks in Europe have that American agriculture is large-scale production agriculture exclusively,” Vilsack said. “It was important for us to convey that there is a significant diversity of crops, livestock and size of operations.”

He also said it was important to remind European officials that Congress has to approve any eventual agreement, “and that if there is not a strong commitment to agriculture,” there may not be enough political support for passage.

Vilsack pointed to a number of “critical” issues that he said needed to be dealt with in a “meaningful and significant way.” They include science-based rulemaking, crops and animals produced with genetic engineering, and geographic indicators, or GIs, where countries seek to prevent the marketing of products with geographic names, unless they actually come from that area. Parmesan cheese is one example.

“Trade agreements are more than about the commercial aspect of trade,” Vilsack emphasized. “They are about relationships and the importance of having a continued building and strengthening of the relationship between the EU and U.S. This is particularly true for what is happening in Russia and the Ukraine and other parts of the world today,” he said.

“Trade agreements create that strengthening of the foundation of relationships.”

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