Terri Sewell hosts Obama trade chief Michael Froman for trade summit

US Rep Terri Sewell opinion

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell says Alabama businesses and workers would benefit from expanding U.S. trade opportunities.

Sewell invited U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, President Barack Obama’s chief official on international trade, to visit Alabama to discuss the importance of exports for the state economy.

“Exports help drive Alabama’s economy,” Sewell said. “Alabama businesses exported $19.5 billion in merchandise last year, which supported more than 95,000 jobs. Access to foreign markets and fair trade policies that benefit American workers are integral, necessary components that will help Alabama exporters to continue to thrive and spur new job growth.”

Froman said reducing taxes that the U.S. pays to export products from Alabama and other states, as well as improving labor standards abroad, were key to supporting jobs in the state.

“By tearing down those barriers and raising the standards in other countries, we level the playing field,” Froman said. “And we know when we level the playing field, our workers, our farmers, our ranchers, and our small to medium-sized businesses can compete and win.”

Alabama exports — transportation equipment, poultry, soybeans, and cotton — could face tariffs as high as 50 percent, Froman said.

“If we can get rid of those taxes and we can eliminate those tariffs, right now 62 percent of all Alabama’s exports go to either the Asia Pacific or the European Union,” he said. “They can do so much more if they get rid of those other barriers. Every billion dollars of additional exports support up to 5,000 jobs. These are good, high-paying jobs.”

The ambassador’s visit comes at a pivotal point  in the Obama Administration’s battle with Congress over expanding the President’s authority to negotiate trade agreements.

Politico reported that so far only 20 House Democrats have agreed to vote in favor of giving the president “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade agreements and that the bill has well below the votes needed on either side to pass in the House and Senate.

The legislation would also grant the president authority to finish a sweeping trade deal with several Asian countries. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has taken more than 10 years to negotiate and sets trade terms with 11 countries along the Pacific Rim, including Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. The group of nations has a combined gross domestic product of $28 billion and represents about 40 percent of the world economy.

Sewell called the “fast track” or trade promotion authority a “hallmark” legislation that would provide a framework for the upcoming discussions over trade between the U.S., Asia, and the European Union.

Passing the agreement is one of the president’s last major priorities, but so far Democrats have been unwilling to support the deal.

“Congress has before it some big decisions when it comes to trade,” Sewell said. “Today has given me the opportunity to ask some very important, pressing questions from my constituents, especially labor, and to raise concerns that they’ve had. The ambassador has left me with a lot of food for thought.”

Among those concerns, Sewell said, were that companies not be lured away by relaxed labor and regulatory standards in other countries.

“I think it’s important that, especially in Alabama, where we’ve seen some trade agreements in the past have caused certain companies to close and take up shops overseas,” Sewell said. “I just want to make sure that the American workers are not left behind and so one of the big concerns that I had, and that some of the local labor unions had, was making sure that they had a seat at the table and that the negotiating would take into account their concerns as well.”

In a prepared statement issued late Monday, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions called the fast track legislation “unenforceable” and said that the administration is seeking “blind faith” that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will increase U.S. jobs and wages.

“Everyone supports trade. The question — the most fundamental question of all — is whether they are good trade deals, that advance America’s core national interests, or bad trade deals, that undermine them,” Sessions said. “Poorly negotiated trade deals, instead of opening new markets for our industries, tilt the playing field even further in their competitors’ direction. The result is not freer global trade, but more mercantilist market domination.”

Congresswoman Sewell remains undecided on both TPP and TPA.

U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Sessions voted against expanding trade promotion authority in 2002. It remains unclear whether Shelby will support the deal.