WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2015 – The Obama administration on Thursday announced a series of initiatives aimed at helping farms and businesses in rural America access overseas markets, noting that those markets could be dramatically widened by the conclusion of ambitious free trade agreements with Pacific Rim nations and with the European Union.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, briefing reporters prior to the announcement, pointed out that U.S. exports reached a record $2.35 trillion last year, supporting more than 11 million jobs, with 26 states setting export records in 2014. “It’s extremely important that we continue to expand our export opportunities,” said Vilsack.

Agricultural exports also reached a record $150.5 billion in 2014, topping off the strongest six-year period in history for agricultural trade, with farm exports during those years totaling $786.9 billion, according to USDA. Vilsack said that just in his home state of Iowa, overseas sales of agricultural products like soybeans and pork have contributed billions to the local economy. 

The president’s executive actions announced today were developed from feedback compiled following a series of workshops across the country hosted by the White House Rural Council. They include:

--A series of reverse trade missions and outreach events for rural businesses to meet foreign buyers, partners, and trade experts and facilitate access to additional foreign markets.

--An effort to double the number of rural businesses attending international trade shows and missions with the help and sponsorship of partners, including the Appalachian Regional Commission and Delta Regional Authority. Some 75 trade specialists are already at work nationwide on this mission, officials said.

--A new National Rural Export Innovation Team to help more rural businesses access export-related assistance, information and events. Some 75 trade specialists are already at work nationwide on this mission, according to Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who also participated in today’s briefing.

--A new partnership with community banks to educate local lenders on the needs of rural exporters and the federal export resources available to them and their customers.

--A new partnership with the United States Postal Service to host “Grow Your Business” Day workshops at 75  USPS locations throughout rural America to provide rural businesses an opportunity to learn about exporting and e-commerce, learn how to file customs forms online, and calculate and plan for export shipping costs.

-An effort to develop better financial indexing and metrics for rural infrastructure projects.  This White House said this will help underpin additional investments in roads, bridges, inland ports, water supply systems, information technology, and community facilities that are vital to manufacturing and exports. 

--A new effort to promote an entrepreneurial ecosystem mentorship program for rural communities.

“Exports are a crucial part of the administration’s strategy to keep our economy growing and the president is focused on taking action to help workers from businesses of all sizes from all parts of the country – including rural America – benefit from our economic resurgence,” the White House said.

Vilsack, Muñoz and Deputy Commerce Secretary Bruce Andrews also used today’s briefing to stress the potential benefits from the two major trade treaties under negotiation -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), and the need to grant the president the fast-track authority to bring the treaties to conclusion.

The White House said the countries involved in the two treaties – a dozen in the TPP including Japan and Canada, and the 28 nations in the European Union -- received almost two-thirds of U.S. goods exports in 2014, supporting an estimated 4.2 million U.S. jobs in 2013.

The fast-track trade promotion authority (TPA) “will allow these agreements to become a reality, spurring economic growth in the United States and our trading partners,” the White House said. TPA, granted to every president since Franklin Roosevelt, allows the chief executive to negotiate a treaty that Congress can only accept or reject, without making any changes.

As for the importance of the treaties themselves, Andrews said “it’s simply a numbers game,” noting that 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the U.S. and that by 2030, Asia’s middle class population is expected to swell to 3.2 billion , more than eight times the entire projected U.S. population.

As the White House put it, “We can’t afford to miss an opportunity to open these growing markets to American products.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the president’s trade agenda are stepping up their attacks on the TPP. A succession of senators opposed to the deal followed each other to the floor Thursday afternoon to attack various aspects of what they said would be in the agreement. 

The senators, all Democrats except for Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said little about agricultural issues, although Ed Markey of Massachusetts raised concerns that the agreement wouldn’t stop harmful fishery subsidies and illegal fishing.

Robert Casey of Pennsylvania said most of the TPP countries undervalue their currencies, which can raise the cost of U.S. goods. Elizabeth Warren, also of Massachusetts, complained that an investor dispute settlement process would allow multinational corporations to challenge U.S. regulations and claim “millions, even billions” of damages from American taxpayers.

The Commerce Department’s Andrews commented on that subject in today’s briefing, saying the same provision has been in prior trade agreements for the past 50 years and the U.S. has never lost a challenge.

(Philip Brasher contributed to this report.)


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