WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 2015 – The Republican Congress is likely to grant President Obama the “fast track” procedure known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), allowing him to submit trade agreements for an up-or-down vote in Congress, former Agriculture Secretary and U.S. Senator Mike Johanns said last week.

However, he told the Washington Agricultural Roundtable that chances of reaching satisfactory agreements with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union will remain challenging. Johanns, who chose not to run for re-election last year, has unique experience to assess trade legislation: his two-plus years at USDA were consumed by efforts to persuade Japan to lift its ban on U.S. beef imports and his Senate term gives him an inside perspective on challenges in Congress.

Although his remarks were billed as off the record, the Nebraska Republican gave Agri-Pulse permission to report his comments on prospects for trade negotiations and legislation.

“The opening effort has to be with TPA,” he said. “Can TPA pass? I believe it can. I do believe it will have strong support from folks in this room. I believe it will have strong support from the business community. Even the Club for Growth says if you don’t put whistles and bells on it, we could see our way clear to support it. So I continue to be optimistic that it will pass.”

Although TPA is only the starting point in a new round of trade liberalization, Johanns said, “it will send a signal across the world that we are serious. If we could pass TPA, it does have an impact on the negotiations. I think that would be a very positive signal” to negotiators on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Of the two, TTIP, a deal with the European Union, “has the greatest chance to move forward” although both face unique negotiating challenges,” said Johanns, who was elected to the Deere & Co. board last month.

To complete negotiations and achieve congressional approval will require the administration to make a strong case, Johanns argued. “They’re going to have to demonstrate that there will be real gains in market access – and there’s a whole host of issues there – tariffs, biotech, just a whole host of issues. They’re going to have to demonstrate, secondly, that the regulatory burdens are being addressed in some meaningful way. The third thing is government procurement. It is at least going to have to be addressed but I don’t think it will get very far. It’s just such a difficult issue. The thought of opening government procurement to foreign suppliers is very difficult. Fourth, they’re going to have to make some progress on services. There’s no question about it.”

Improving overseas market access for agriculture will be essential to getting any agreement through Congress, he said. “If agriculture isn’t enthusiastically behind any trade agreement, the chances of it getting done become much, much smaller. You can’t battle agriculture and expect to get a trade agreement approved in the House or Senate,” he added.

Obstacles to agreement on agricultural trade are not unlike those Johanns faced when he was secretary of agriculture in 2005-2007, a time consumed by efforts to persuade Japan to lift its ban on imports of U.S. beef after the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, here in late 2003.

“I can’t emphasize enough how difficult this is,” he said. “When you sit down with the EU and say the first thing we need to talk about this morning is hormones in beef, it’s just a non-starter. They just look and say, “Really, you want to go there, huh?’ How many years have we been looking at that? If it’s not that, it’s poultry wash. It’s just one thing after another.”

He was less than optimistic about overcoming differences with several of the Pacific Rim countries in the TPP negotiations. “Just negotiating with New Zealand would be a challenge in and of itself,” he said. Why? Because of dairy. Canada has the same sorts of issues. Japan: oh my, where do I begin?” Japan’s “outrageously high tariffs on their products” is just the starting point, he said.


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