By Marshall L. Matz and former USDA Secretary John R. Block
Trade policy may present an opportunity for the Obama Administration and the Congress to work together in a bipartisan manner but it is sure not unanimous. While Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative’s Chief Agriculture Negotiator Darci Vetter are making the case for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), Senator Ron Wyden, the Senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is arguing for more negotiating transparency to be required by TPA before signing on. In addition, while there is very strong support for TPA in the agriculture community, it is not unanimous.
TPA is a critical tool in the effort to complete the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and down the road the European Union Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. These trade agreements support U.S. jobs while helping American agriculture compete more successfully in the global marketplace. TPA will help ensure that America’s farmers, ranchers, and food processors receive the greatest benefit from the TPP, TTIP, and future trade negotiations.
These agreements could have an important economic impact on specific commodities and American agriculture more generally. Secretary Tom Vilsack recently spoke out on the importance of trade to agriculture:
“It is no surprise that agricultural producers are joining the chorus of voices calling on Congress to renew Trade Promotion Authority. The past six years were the strongest period for agricultural exports in the history of our nation, despite the fact that many other countries’ markets are not as open to American products as our markets are to theirs. New trade agreements that help level the playing field for agriculture will build on the success we’ve seen in the agricultural economy since 2009 and help producers create more new jobs across the country. What makes the agricultural economy stronger makes our entire nation’s economy stronger. It is imperative that Congress act on Trade Promotion Authority early this year.”
Fiscal years 2009 to 2014 represented the strongest six years in history for U.S. agricultural trade, with U.S. agricultural product exports totaling $771.7 billion. Agricultural exports last fiscal year reached $152.5 billion, the highest level on record and supported nearly one million jobs here at home, a substantial part of the nearly 11.3 million jobs supported by exports all across our country.
USTR’s Office of Agricultural Affairs has overall responsibility for U.S. government trade negotiations and policy development and coordination regarding agriculture. Darci Vetter and other USTR officials, works closely with relevant U.S. government agencies, particularly USDA, as appropriate.
In a recent letter to Congress a broad range of groups outlined the benefits of trade as follows:
“As a result of trade agreements implemented since 1989, when the U.S. began using bilateral and regional trade agreements to open foreign markets to our goods, U.S. agricultural exports have nearly quadrupled in value and now stand at a record $152.5 billion (fiscal 2014). During that period, earnings from U.S. agricultural exports as a share of cash receipts to farmers have grown from 22 percent to over 35 percent.
“These farm and food exports have a positive multiplier effect throughout the U.S. economy. Every $1 in U.S. farm exports is estimated to stimulate an additional $1.27 in business activity. Off-farm activities and services include purchases by farmers of fuel, fertilizer, seed and other inputs as well as post-production processing, packaging, storing, transporting and marketing the products we ship overseas. Exports of $152.5 billion in fiscal 2014 therefore generated another $194 billion in economic activity in the U.S., bringing the total benefit to the economy to $347 billion.”
The chart below shows the percentage of production that was exported, by commodity, in the most recent year for which there are numbers:
1. Exports are critical to the agriculture economy; and
2. Agriculture’s political power may be the key to passage of TPA and the trade agreements being negotiated.
While only one percent (1%) of all Americans farm and the conventional wisdom is that agriculture has lost power, production agriculture still has an important role to play in making the case for expanded trade and TPA, as the farm economy has a major impact on all those who live in rural America. From farm implement dealers to car dealers to rural bankers and the local coffee shops, what is good for farmers is good for rural America.
TPA gives us an opportunity to put economics before politics. The farm groups who have signed the TPA letter to Congress are well positioned to make the case for expanded trade with both Democrats and Republicans bridging the urban-rural divide in America.
Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture policy at OFW Law. He was formerly (Democratic) Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. John R. Block was Secretary of Agriculture under President Reagan.