John McMillan: Global trade vital to Alabama ag, industry

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As Agriculture & Industries Commissioner, I work closely with the Alabama farming and business communities to grow the economy and create prosperity for our state. This provides firsthand knowledge that one of the most important factors in generating this kind of growth and prosperity is international trade. That’s why Congress needs to take a bold step and pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).

TPA has been in the national news quite a bit lately, and garnered a fair share of controversy. But much of what one reads or hears about TPA is misleading or misinformed. Heated rhetoric aside, TPA is nothing more than an agreement between Congress and a U.S. president as to how they will work together to negotiate, consider, and vote on international trade agreements. TPA allows both branches of the federal government to participate in trade development and set up an expedited process for trade deals.

TPA does not take power away from Congress and give it to President Barack Obama. Presidents can negotiate trade deals any time they want — with or without TPA, they still need Congressional approval of any trade deal they negotiate. In fact, TPA provides for more oversight of and transparency from the administration, and gives Congress a voice in the entirety of the process, instead of just a vote at the end. TPA also makes sure the public has its say by requiring any agreement to be published for public review 60 days before it can be finalized.

Why is TPA necessary? Because Congress is Congress, and no matter how beneficial a trade agreement would be for the nation, there will always be one or two legislators who have a political axe to grind who will hold up the process. TPA makes sure the narrow interests of the very few don’t trump the broad interests of the very many. In doing so, it lets our potential trade partners know they can rely on the terms of the agreements they negotiate with a president and that they will not be changed or unduly delayed by a highly politicized Congress.

That’s why it is so important to get TPA back on the books for our state. Alabama is a major exporter, and our farms and businesses count on new global markets to grow their businesses and create jobs. Without TPA, we cannot finalize the kinds of deals that open up these markets. TPA is not some abstract federal legislative issue — it has a direct impact on Alabama’s economy and the 90,000 jobs supported by Alabama exports.

Recently, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman described Alabama as an “exporting powerhouse,” and said that Alabama “exports are supporting well-paying jobs.” These are not understatements: In 2014, Alabama exported $19.5 billion in goods. In 2013, almost 4,000 companies exported from the state, more than 80 percent of which were small- and medium-sized companies. It’s no surprise, then, that a recent poll found that an overwhelming majority of Alabamians support free trade.

Last week the U.S. Senate voted in favor of TPA with a strong, bipartisan majority. I strongly urge Reps. Robert Aderholt, Gary Palmer and Terri Sewell — as well as the rest of Alabama’s congressional delegation — to support TPA as it moves through the U.S. House of Representatives.

John McMillan is the Commissioner of Agriculture & Industries for the state of Alabama. You may contact him at john.mcmillan@agi.alabama.gov.

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