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International trade office spends much of its time traveling domestically

By Phillip Swarts

Wednesday - 7/31/2013, 11:35am  ET

So what’s America’s official trade negotiator to do when there’s no momentum for international deals inside an administration sensitive to labor union concerns? How about travel the United States giving speeches to U.S. workers, instead.

President Obama’s two trade representatives, in fact, have taken more trips across America since taking office than trotting across the globe in pursuit of the free-trade deals Congress imagined when it elevated the Office of the Trade Representative to Cabinet level status, a Washington Guardian analysis of travel records shows.

In all, the trade reps have visited 53 U.S. cities, compared to 46 overseas cities and nations since 2009, the records show.

And that, says the just departed Trade Representative, was no accident. Ron Kirk said he deliberately traveled the country in a campaign-like effort to listen to and change the minds of labor unions and others who have tried to slow new trade deals because of concerns about wage competition, human rights and outsourcing.

“As much as I enjoyed representing the United States around the world, if we were going to be moving forward with an aggressive trade agenda, we’re going to have to not just go to Geneva, Paris and Beijing and Africa, we were going to have to go places like Detroit and Pittsburgh and Maine,” Kirk said in an interview with the Washington Guardian.  “We didn’t just go and preach the gospel of trade, we listened.”

Kirk said the domestic travel helped the administration better understand what international trade specifics were needed to improve the U.S. economy.

“I made a conscious decision to invest as much time engaging domestic stakeholders about how to rebuild and move forward our trade policy, [rather] than just the conventional wisdom that all you do is just go negotiate agreements and shove them down everybody’s throat,” he said.

Kirk stepped down in March, but the current Trade Representative, Michael Froman, was on another domestic trip just this week, visiting the New Balance shoe factory in Norridgewock, Maine. The state’s independent U.S. senator, Angus S. King Jr., briefly held up Froman’s nomination last month until Froman offered to make the trip. The senator's office said the visit was designed to impress on the new trade representative the threat a market-opening deal with Asian economies could pose for the company.

The domestic travel really stands out when compared to President George W. Bush’s administrations.  The USTR did not track travel records under Bush quite the same way it does now, but an analysis of speeches and press releases between 2001-2008 gives a comprehensive picture of where exactly the trade ambassador and his assistants went.

During the Bush administration, trade representatives attended approximately 67 events or meetings in foreign countries, and 78 within the U.S.  That number is misleading, however, as more than three-fourths of the domestic speeches and meetings were in Washington, D.C., where USTR is headquartered.

So excluding “travel” within the nation’s capital, trade representatives during the Bush administration attended 67 events overseas and just over a dozen domestically.

Interestingly, however, in four years Kirk and his deputies traveled to a wider range of countries than Bush’s ambassadors, who mostly journeyed to historic U.S. trading partners like China, South Korea and Switzerland (the headquarters of the World Trade Organization).

Critics see in the new numbers a reflection of a White House that places more emphasis on labor relations than in free trade deals. Obama ran in 2012 as a protector of U.S. jobs, portraying Republican rival Mitt Romney as an outsourcer of jobs.

And the administration has renegotiated deals with South Korea, Panama and Columbia, but has yet to make an enthusiastic push to pursue any more new trade agreements.

In that respect, the U.S. Trade Representative office is at a bit of a crossroads in a year in which it is celebrating a half century in business. It was created in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and expanded in 1974 to foster international trade and business agreements – a move that also saw it elevated to a Cabinet position.  Previously, such international economic agreements were handled by the State Department.

A representative for Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said the senator is concerned the Obama administration isn’t doing enough to pursue international trade agreements.  Portman served as the Trade Representative under President Bush in 2005 and 2006.

While international trade agreements have potential to “open global markets for American made products,” Portman is concerned “that American exporters are falling behind,” said a statement provided by Spokeswoman Caitlin Dunn.

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