Obama’s trade reps are house cats; skip overseas deal-making opportunites for U.S. junkets

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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 American workers, instead.

President Obama’s two trade representatives, in fact, have taken more trips inside the country while in office than trotting around the globe in pursuit of the free trade deals that Congress imagined when it elevated the Office of the Trade Representative (USTR) to Cabinet-level status, The Washington Times found in an analysis of travel records.

In all, Mr. Obama’s trade representatives have visited 53 U.S. cities, compared with 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-style effort to listen to and change the minds of labor unions and others who have tried to slow 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 to places like Detroit and Pittsburgh and Maine,” Mr. Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, said in an interviews. “We didn’t just go and preach the gospel of trade; we listened.”

Ron Kirk, who recently stepped down as U.S. trade representative, says he traveled the country to listen to and change the minds of those who tried to slow trade deals. (Associated Press)

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Ron Kirk, who recently stepped down as U.S. trade representative, says he ... more >

Mr. Kirk, whose successor, former White House economic aide Michael Froman, was confirmed by the Senate just last month, 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Froman’s nomination last month until Mr. 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 with the record under President George W. Bush. The USTR did not track travel records under Mr. Bush quite the same way it does now, but an analysis of speeches and press releases from 2001 to 2008 gives a comprehensive picture of where exactly the trade ambassador and his assistants went.

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

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

New destinations

In four years, Mr. Kirk and his deputies traveled to a wider range of countries than Mr. Bush’s ambassadors, who journeyed mostly to major U.S. trading partners such as China and South Korea, as well as to Switzerland, the headquarters of the World Trade Organization.

Critics see in the numbers a reflection of a White House that places more emphasis on good relations with labor unions at home than on making free trade deals. Mr. Obama ran in 2012 as a protector of the U.S. worker while portraying Republican rival Mitt Romney as an outsourcer of jobs.

The administration also has renegotiated deals — begun under Mr. Bush — with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, but has not made an enthusiastic push to pursue any more trade agreements.

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