UK appeals to Congress in push for trade deal
British diplomats are pitching U.S. lawmakers on trade as the Biden administration slow-walks discussions around a bilateral trade agreement.
The British Embassy in Washington plans to distribute reports to every member of Congress detailing how the U.S.-U.K. trade relationship impacts their constituents. The effort comes as Britain pushes to secure a trade deal with the U.S. and resolve trade disputes that started under former President Trump.
“You negotiate agreements with the administration, but then the Congress has to approve them,” Antony Phillipson, British trade commissioner for North America and consul general in New York, told The Hill. “These reports are part of being able to tell a story with key members of Congress about the importance of the U.K. trade relationship.”
The embassy’s reports show that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) district exported $1.1 billion in services to the U.K. in 2019, making Britain her district’s largest export market that year.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) home state exported $3.5 billion in goods to the U.K. in 2019, according to the embassy’s data. Kentucky’s whiskey industry has been hit hard by tariffs put in place by the U.K. and the European Union in 2018 in response to Trump’s steel tariffs.
“We wanted to be able to tell the story at a local level,” Phillipson said, adding that U.K. officials also share the trade reports with local politicians and influential trade associations.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Biden met Thursday ahead of the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England. They signed a new version of the World War II-era Atlantic Charter pledging to combat climate change, strengthen democratic institutions and deepen the nations’ trading partnership.
Johnson promised a swift trade deal with the U.S. after Britain left the European Union. But Biden has insisted he is focused on domestic issues, and members of his administration have downplayed the chances of an imminent agreement.
A handful of U.S. lawmakers are boosting Britain’s trade push. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), former U.S. trade representative under former President George W. Bush, urged Biden’s top trade official to negotiate a trade agreement with the U.K. during a hearing last month.
In response, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai hinted that Britain needs to resolve its battle with the European Union over the Northern Ireland border before trade talks can move forward.
Johnson committed this week to upholding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace between the U.K. and Ireland. Biden has warned Johnson against inflaming tensions with Ireland by reinstating a hard border, and the Senate unanimously passed a resolution in March stating any U.S.-U.K. trade deal must abide by rules set out in the decades-old agreement.
“I hear a lot of concerns from members of Congress around the situation in Northern Ireland,” Tai told lawmakers during a hearing last month. “That is something we are keeping our eye on in terms of steps forward with the U.K. on an agreement.”
Lawmakers have also pushed the Biden administration to settle a trade dispute with the U.K. that started under Trump. Britain continues to levy a 25 percent tariff on imports of American whiskey in response to Trump’s tariffs on British steel.
In April, Reps. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) and Andy Barr (R-Ky.), along with 48 other lawmakers, called on Biden to secure an end to the tariffs. They noted that the whiskey industry’s imports to the U.K. fell by 53 percent since tariffs were imposed.
“Absent urgent action to fully suspend these tariffs, American Whiskey will remain at a serious competitive disadvantage in our two most important export markets, and we fear many craft distillers will be put out of business,” the lawmakers wrote.
Those tariffs were set to double by June 1, but both sides agreed to pause the increase after a bipartisan group of senators called on Biden to work out a deal.
Industry groups representing distillers, retailers and importers have aggressively lobbied Biden over the whiskey tariffs. The Toasts Not Tariffs Coalition sent a letter to Biden last week urging him to “secure a return to bilateral duty-free trade in distilled spirits.”
The alcohol industry is at odds with steel trade groups, which sent a letter to Biden last month asking him to keep Trump’s tariffs intact. The pro-tariff effort is backed by the United Steelworkers union, which supported Biden’s 2020 campaign. In his first week in office, Biden appointed a steelworkers union official, Jim Frederick, to run the Labor Department’s workplace safety agency.
At an AFL-CIO town hall on Thursday, Tai said she was “optimistic” the Biden administration could find a solution to the trade dispute.