International trade office spends much of its time traveling domestically

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.

Portman wants the Obama administration and Congress to renew the Trade Promotion Authority – legislation that allows the White House to fast track trade agreements and forces Congress to a simple yes or no vote with no amendments or filibusters.  The last authorization ended in 2007

The senator described Trade Promotion Authority as a way to get trade agreements “over the finish line.”

“USTR needs to be nimble to be an effective agency,” Dunn’s statement said.  “Its limited resources must be used wisely and effectively to support America’s trade negotiators.”

Froman, the current Trade Representative, has said he is interested in renewing Trade Promotion Authority.

Meanwhile, Kirk and the administration supporters shrug off the criticisms and the perception that all the domestic travel looks like union advocacy.

Good trade policy can’t be made in a vacuum, Kirk said.  Federal negotiators must understand what economic interests are present and what business opportunities are needed in America.  That way, international agreements can be most beneficial to the U.S. economy.

“We fundamentally believe that in order to help grow our economy, the United States has to be engaged in the competition, this new global competition, for these new consumers around the world,” he said.

USTR tracks the ambassador’s travels on their website, with information on what each trip was for and transcripts of many speeches given during the visit.

2009 was the last year where both domestic and international travels were close to each other: 16 international and 10 domestic.  But in 2010, travel within the U.S. jumped to 19 trips and appearances, compared to just six international trips.

In 2011, the ambassador again made just six visits overseas, while making 13 trips within the U.S.  In 2012, the rates are again similar: 14 international jaunts and 10 domestic.  And in 2013, the trade rep has only taken five trips: the travel to Maine this week and then four trips overseas.  Three of the visits were taken in conjunction with President Barack Obama’s tour through Africa last month.

But some international trips taken by the ambassador aren’t always for the express purpose of negotiating trade agreements.  Like the trips to Africa this year, some travels are the ambassador accompanying the president to discuss economic policy overseas.  Other trips are to attend events like a meeting of the World Trade Organization, where the ambassador is expected to represent U.S. interests.  
Meanwhile, the domestic trips have been accused of overtones of a campaign style event, with the trade representative often speaking to large groups of workers.  The USTR website states that several of the ambassador’s travels included delivering speeches on “how the Obama Administration’s trade policy increases U.S. exports and American jobs.”

The USTR website describes the trade representative as a Cabinet-level position who “serves as the president’s principal trade advisor, negotiator and spokesperson on trade issues.”

Several of Kirk’s speeches oftentimes used campaign-like rhetoric.

“The President’s policies are based on the principle that America does best when we’re all in it together, when everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same set of rules,” Kirk said in a September 2012 speech in Florida.

“President Obama made the right calls in a series of tough decisions to prevent total economic collapse and bring us back from the brink.  And thanks to his leadership, we are headed in the right direction today,” he continued.

Trade ambassadors under President Bush also sometimes used rhetoric to support policies, but the speeches were usually directed at foreign leaders and economic experts, not U.S. workers. 

“President Bush has put open trade at the center of his vision for a more prosperous and peaceful world,” Portman told a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Hong Kong in 2005.  “The U.S. already provides more aid for trade than any other country in the world, and we’re proud of that.”

But Kirk said he didn’t see any politicization of the office calling it the “least partisan” of any federal agency.  Its goal is simple: to improve the U.S. economy.  Part of his domestic outreach was to restore the public’s faith in international trade, something Kirk said had waivered during the difficult economic times when President Obama took office.

“There was more anxiety and outright hostility over America’s trade policy than any other time,” Kirk said, adding that people had the mistaken impression that trade agreements could benefit only U.S. labor or only U.S. businesses.

Still, Kirk said, the Trade Representative is a member of the president’s Cabinet and part of his economic team.  Therefore, the office is likely to share the economic goals and policies of the administration.

For his part, Kirk said he agreed with Obama.

“I believed in what the president was doing to save our economy, to turn America around, to create jobs, to invest in our infrastructure, to invest in education, and we saw global trade as a tool to advance that,” he said.

Kirk has since stepped down, and his replacement, Michael Froman, was sworn in in June.  Froman is assisted by three deputy representatives: Miriam Sapiro, Michael Punke and Wendy Cutler.

Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for USTR, echoed Kirk’s statement that it’s just as important for the Trade Representative to travel inside America’s borders as it is outside.

“USTR’s job is to make trade work, including direct engagement with the American people as we pursue job creation, growth and a stronger middle class,” she said.  “The balance of consultation we’ve done at home and tough negotiation and enforcement abroad are paying off for the American people as record exports and expanded trade help create jobs and economic opportunity.”

The agency’s budget, meanwhile, has slowly ticked upward by roughly $7 million since 2008, though the agency is requesting another boost of $5 million next year.

International trade agreements can take on a number of forms, but most are an agreement between countries to allow trade of certain objects, setting tariffs, taxes and quotas for those goods.

The U.S. doesn’t have to look far to find some of its largest trading partners.  Canada is the largest importer of U.S.-made goods, with Mexico second.  China is the third largest importer of U.S. goods, while for its part the U.S. imports more goods from China than from anywhere else.

The growing trade deficit and increasing debt with China has been a concern among many Washington lawmakers.  In 2012, the U.S. imported $425 billion worth of Chinese goods, but only exported $110 billion – a deficit of $315 billion, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Between January and May 2013 – the most recent information available – the U.S. has imported $167 billion in Chinese goods but only exported $46 billion, making a $121 billion deficit.

The Obama administration has filed more trade complaints against China than any previous administration, concerned about that nation’s protectionist policies and artificial inflation of its currency.

In fact, Obama’s international economic policy has drawn fire from a group that’s often a stalwart of the Democratic Party – labor unions.

Unions have often argued that many trade agreements hurt American workers by shipping jobs overseas as corporations take advantage of cheaper labor rates and wages in foreign nations.

The nation’s chief labor advocacy group, AFL-CIO, leaves little doubt on its website what its opinion of current trade policy is.

“The global corporate agenda has infused trade policy with its demands for deregulation, privatization, tax breaks and other financial advantages for Big Business while shrinking the social safety net in the name of ‘labor flexibility,’” the statement said.

Kirk argued that the White House’s economic policy was not to fight against labor, but to give them a voice and a seat at the negotiating table.

“A trade policy that is balanced, that is done right, that is thoughtful, that has strong enforcement in labor and environmental provisions is a very critical tool to giving U.S. entrepreneurs and business and farmers access to consumers around the world,” he said.

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