President Joe Biden’s choice to be the next chief agricultural trade negotiator spent much of his nomination hearing arguing that he and the U.S. trade representative will be able to increase foreign market access for U.S. farm goods without negotiating new free trade agreements, but Republican senators weren't buying it.

GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Thune of South Dakota, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho and others used the Senate Finance Committee hearing for USDA adviser Doug McKalip to rail against the Biden administration's refusal to negotiate traditional tariff-cutting market access deals.

“How are you prepared to work with countries to be able to get new free trade agreements, because we need new places to sell pork,” Lankford said. “We need new places to send pork. We need new places to send beef. We need new places to send wheat. We need new places to send soybeans.”

McKalip stressed repeatedly that even if he won’t be negotiating traditional FTAs, he will be fighting to increase U.S. ag export opportunities overseas.

“My role as chief agriculture negotiator will be to get (farmers) the kind of market access that they are expecting and need, regardless of what the title at the top of the document says,” McKalip said.

The senators expressed sharp skepticism.

“We are not talking about trade-opening agreements,” Portman said. “It’s shooting ourselves in the foot not to have a single trade negotiating agreement going on today.”

But McKalip was steadfast in his arguments and even used a Boy Scout simile. While the traditional FTA is equivalent to the “Eagle Scout level of attainment of market access,” he would work on individual “merit badges” that open up trade.

“I will work diligently and tirelessly to make sure my team at USTR is fighting to get a full jacket, sash – everything – covered with merit badges so that at the end of the day we can get the same level of market access for farmers,” he said.

The senators appeared to be unconvinced.

“Nationally, one in three acres planted in the United States will be exported,” Crapo said. “But we can sell even more. What is holding us back is, again, a misplaced Biden Administration policy: a moratorium on new trade agreements, and limited enforcement of existing agreements.” 

McKalip lauded the potential benefits of the Biden administration’s proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and promised he would focus his efforts on making the proposed IPEF deal a trade success for farmers, but the senators repeatedly blasted the effort as falling far short of what farmers need.

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Senior Biden administration officials have told reporters that, as of now, there are no plans to include traditional tariff-cutting market access provisions in IPEF.

“We need free trade agreements,” said Portman, a former U.S. Trade Representative. “This is an area of the world where we ought to be competing hard, but in order for that to happen we’ve got to focus on market access.”

McKalip agreed during the hearing that he believed that new market access for farmers is important, but the senators disagreed with his proposal on how to gain that access. McKalip at one point argued that IPEF would allow him to negotiate on issues such as better foreign acceptance of biotech crops and promised he would push for new tools to give the U.S. leverage with foreign governments.

But Portman retorted: “Leverage for farmers in America comes from the willingness to engage in market access. That’s our experience … I am deeply concerned that the (IPEF) fails to include market access for agriculture.”

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