Americans deserve a level playing field

During the State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama set a goal of doubling exports within five years, and noted how important trade is to job growth and business investment. The president specifically cited Colombia, South Korea and Panama, three countries with whom the previous administration negotiated trade agreements — agreements that have been awaiting Congressional approval ever since. 

It was encouraging to hear the president’s views on the importance of trade. With predictions by the Congressional Budget Office that the U.S. unemployment rate will hover around 10 percent for the better part of this year, we should be pursuing every possible avenue to help businesses grow and create jobs. And the pending trade agreements will do just that. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that enactment of the agreements could lead to the growth of U.S. national output by over $40 billion; conversely, if the United States fails to implement the agreements with Colombia and Korea, over 380,000 U.S. jobs could be lost or displaced.  

Additionally, while we sit on the sidelines, Canada, the European Union and India — to name a few — are in some stage of negotiations with Colombia, South Korea and/or Panama, while the agreements we have already signed with those same countries languish in limbo. So in addition to costing jobs, inaction on the pending trade agreements will put us at a disadvantage with our global competitors.

Recently, members of the president’s Cabinet have reinforced the administration’s promise on trade. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told a committee in the House of Representatives that it is a “very realistic objective” for the administration and Congress to “work together to pass strong trade agreements that will expand opportunities in ... foreign markets.” Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has noted the importance of leveling the playing field for American-made products in foreign markets. And Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack cited the need to provide American exporters sufficient resources in the face of global economic challenges and increased production and export promotion by our competitors.

The administration’s stated commitment to trade is welcome. I hope these words are backed up by real action.  When roughly 95 percent of the world’s consumers reside somewhere other than the United States, the global marketplace is critical to U.S. companies. It is of particular importance to agriculture, which is the backbone of my home state’s economy, and a significant driver for our nation’s economy. Agriculture is one of the few areas where the U.S. has had a net trade surplus in recent years.  

The good news is that American representatives have been working for years to expand exports. As secretary of Agriculture, I traveled the world negotiating trade deals and seeing the positive results for our exporters. I know the importance of the pending agreements with Colombia, South Korea  and Panama. Each agreement would eliminate barriers and level the playing field for America’s farmers and ranchers, as well as American companies, helping them create jobs and bolster the economy. 

Consider this: American producers are currently forced to pay substantial tariffs on their exports to Colombian, South Korean and Panamanian markets. For example, more than $2.5 billion in tariffs on American exports have been paid since the Colombian agreement was signed in November 2006. By contrast, Colombian producers do not pay any tariff on 90 percent of the products they sell in the United States. Should Congress ratify the Colombian trade agreement, American producers would be allowed to compete on a level playing field with Colombian producers.

In South Korea and Panama, it is more of the same. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that reducing South Korean tariffs would increase our exports to Korea by $10 billion per year. Nearly two-thirds of our agricultural exports to Korea would become duty-free under the agreement. The Panamanian agreement would enable more than 60 percent of our agricultural exports to become duty-free, and would resolve regulatory and trade barriers faced by American producers.

Implementing these agreements will increase exports and create jobs. During challenging economic times, we must do all we can to provide our businesses and job creators the tools they need to compete in a global economy.

Unfortunately, while all three agreements have been signed by each respective country, they still must be green-lighted by this president and sent to Congress for approval. I hope President Obama will take decisive action to show he is serious about his promise. I recently sent him a letter, along with a bipartisan list of 17 co-signers, supporting his goal of increasing exports, and urging him to send implementing language for the trade agreements to Congress for approval. I stand ready to work with the president to enact these agreements, so that his goal of doubling exports becomes a reality. 

Johanns, a former secretary of Agriculure, is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.