- Associated Press - Friday, October 28, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - United States Trade Representative Michael Froman walked up to the bar in the tasting room of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery on Friday to tout the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement for Tennessee whiskey makers, auto producers and the country music industry.

Froman said President Barack Obama’s administration is pushing for Congress to approve the trade deal before the new president is inaugurated in January. The trade deal has become a focus of the presidential campaign, with both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump criticizing the agreement.

The Obama administration wants Congress to approve the deal before the new president takes over, Froman said.

“Given the uncertainty ahead, I think it’s very dangerous to the United States to cede our leadership role in this region to China, let China write the rules of the road and let China have access to these markets at our expense,” he said.

Tennessee’s whiskey exports were valued at $691 million in 2015, making up 65 percent of all whiskey shipped out of the country. Import duties on spirits of up to 45 percent would be slashed under the agreement between the U.S. and Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

The trade deal would also eliminate tariffs of up to 70 percent for U.S.-made vehicles, 50 percent on engines and 40 percent on poultry, Froman said. It would also establish intellectual property standards that would protect songwriters and musicians.

Economists argue that the benefits of free trade outweigh the costs. Imports cut prices for consumers. And exposure to foreign competition makes American companies and the overall U.S. economy more efficient.

But the growth of China as an economic power has led to doubts among critics who cite cheap labor, government subsidies for exporters, currency manipulation and the theft of U.S. trade secrets.

A Pew Research Center survey of more than 5,000 Americans earlier this month found that 80 percent considered outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries a threat to U.S. workers. And 77 percent pointed to competition from foreign imports.

Froman said that 80 percent of goods imported from the TPP countries are already duty free and that applied tariff is 1.5 percent.

“So if we’re going from 1.5 percent to zero, and the rest of the world is going 70 percent to zero, that’s a pretty good deal,” he said.

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