WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2015 – A bipartisan group of former U.S. agriculture secretaries going back to the Carter administration is urging Congress to pass fast-track trade promotion authority (TPA) as a way to help President Obama conclude trade deals with a group of Pacific Rim nations and with the European Union.

In an open letter to Congress, the former secretaries noted that TPA or similar authority has been granted to every chief executive since Franklin Roosevelt and that they deemed it critical for successfully creating trade agreements that helped boost U.S. agricultural exports to a record $152.5 billion in fiscal 2014. TPA would allow Congress only an up or down vote on a negotiated agreement.

“Key to our ability to negotiate and implement market-opening agreements has been enactment of trade negotiating authority,” the former secretaries wrote. “This authority … ensures that the U.S. has the credibility to conclude the best deal possible at the negotiating table. TPA also ensures common negotiating objectives between the president and the Congress, and a continuous consultation process prior to final Congressional approval or disapproval of a trade agreement.”

The former secretaries, as well as the current USDA chief, Tom Vilsack, also warned that other governments are actively forging ahead with their own trade deals, adding, “If the United States stands still, other countries will quickly move ahead of us.”

Vilsack delivered much the same message today to some 7,400 corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum farmers at the Commodity Classic in Phoenix.

If the U.S. fails to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other Asia Pacific countries, China will take the lead and attempt to create an all-Asia trade pact, Vilsack said. If U.S. citizens are interested in fair trade and improving labor and environmental standards,   “Would you prefer China or the U.S. leading those discussions?”

Vilsack urged the attendees to put as much grassroots energy into getting Congress to pass TPA and the trade agreement as they did the 2014 farm bill.

“The same commitment you made to the farm bill has to be applied to trade,” he said. “Because the other side is organized, passionate and committed.”

Several members of Congress, mostly Democrats, have expressed opposition to TPP, charging that like other multinational trade agreements, it would export jobs and include nations with poor labor, environmental and human rights records. They also complain that the deal is being decided behind closed doors.

However, Vilsack argued that “every member of Congress has the right to read negotiating text as its being developed; you can’t get more transparent than that.”

Vilsack also joined two former agriculture secretaries, Democrat Dan Glickman (1995-2001) and Republican Ann Veneman (2001-2005) on a conference call to rally support for trade promotion authority and the TPP.

During the call, Vilsack was asked about a snag in Senate negotiations on a TPA bill. Democrats are demanding language in the legislation that could make it more difficult to fast-track a trade deal, according to sources. The issue has to do with the detailed congressional procedures for moving an agreement to a final, up-or-down vote.

Vilsack sidestepped the question about the holdup but said lawmakers are already being provided with briefings on the TPP negotiations, and that the TPA legislation would specify that Congress should create the framework for a successful deal and specify its goals.

“And if we’re not doing our job, Congress can very easily indicate its displeasure by not voting” for the agreement, Vilsack said.

In a news release announcing the letter from the former agriculture secretaries, USDA said Congress could begin consideration of legislation to grant Obama TPA as early as next week. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on Friday said he didn’t think that would happen. Grassley is a member of the Finance Committee, which is writing the TPA bill.

(Sarah Gonzalez in Phoenix and Phil Brasher in Washington contributed to this report.)


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