Don't expect the Bush administration - or the business community - to abandon or alter its free trade agendas, even though a new Democratic-controlled Congress has vowed to look more closely at trade enforcement and to include more labor and environmental provisions in any new free trade agreements.
``We will push forward with our trade agenda,'' said Carlos Gutierrez, secretary of the Department of Commerce, at an open forum the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held earlier this month to discuss its legislative agenda for 2007.
``We believe in it as much as we ever have,'' Gutierrez said.
``We will vigorously oppose any efforts to reduce free trade,'' said Thomas Donohue, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer. ``We will not back away from an aggressive free trade agenda.''
He said the Chamber plans to put more resources into a public educational campaign to explain how America benefits from free trade. ``We have to put our focus on global trade and how it brings benefits to 99 percent of the workers in this country,'' Donohue said. ``The supporters of free trade have not done a good job of explaining the benefits of free trade to American citizens.''
Donohue said the U.S. Chamber would work to obtain additional free trade agreements with Columbia, South Korea, Malaysia and Peru, and that it would seek ``permanent renewal'' of the president's Trade Promotion Authority, under which international trade agreements are subject to an up-or-down vote, but not amendment, in Congress.
The TPA, signed into law in August 2002, is scheduled to expire June 30. ``Failure to renew it would significantly hamper the Bush administration's trade agenda,'' said Eugenia Ross, director of international trade for the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
The plastics industry has benefited from the free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration. A case in point: It was able to secure plastic product tariff reductions in the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which covers the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
``TPA for the president is absolutely critical,'' said Gutierrez. ``No president should be asked to be without TPA.'' He said that the 10 existing FTAs, along with market-opening agreements with four other countries, give U.S. companies ``greater access and greater share'' of foreign markets.
``We are exporting more and more and we expect double-digit export growth around the globe,'' Gutierrez said. He added that 42 percent of U.S. exports go to countries where the United States has a free trade agreement.
Gutierrez said that U.S. exports outpaced imports in 2006 and said that, despite the undervalued yuan, U.S. exports to China increased 34 percent, while imports from China to the U.S. rose at a much lower rate comparatively, 17 percent.
``South of our border, we have a lot of potential,'' said Gutierrrez, noting that exports to the CAFTA countries are up 21 percent since CAFTA was signed into law last August. ``We have Peru and Columbia waiting, and we are having an ongoing dialogue with Brazil. Generally speaking, these Latin American countries want to do more business with the U.S.''
U.S. trade representatives completed a bilateral FTA with Panama in December that will eliminate nearly 90 percent of Panama's industrial goods immediately with the rest phased out during the next 10 years. The U.S. had a trade surplus with Panama of $1.8 billion in 2005. The plastics industry had a trade surplus of $45.8 million; its exports to Panama in 2005 were $48.7 million, compared with imports of $2.9 million.
Gutierrez said free trade, solid pro-growth policies and worker training initiatives were essential to a strong U.S. economy and U.S. job growth.
``The best thing we can do to continue to grow our economy is to continue our free trade agenda and make sure that this is the greatest country in the world to invest and do business in,'' declared Gutierrez.
``The only way to protect American jobs is to encourage innovation, expand private investment and train our workforce better,'' he said. ``We need to make sure regulations don't hurt economic growth. We need to make tax reduction and the research and development investment credit permanent. That is high on the president's agenda.
``And let's face reality. We need to educate our workforce and provide better training to our workers. It is vital to helping our country and companies stay competitive in the future. Without a strong workforce, we will fail to succeed,'' Gutierrez said.
``Fifteen years ago, companies were judging themselves on how much business they had outside the U.S. That is still important, but companies now realize that this is the strongest market in the world and that you can't call yourself a global company if you don't have a strong business in the United States.''