U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave a much-needed push to the proposed U.S.-Korea Foreign Trade Agreement earlier this month. Vilsack pointed out in a press conference that unless Congress acts quickly, Australian beef will gain a 15-year price advantage over U.S. beef.
Welcome as they were, Vilsack’s comments so far have had produced little effect. More should be done. The Obama administration should not let this issue drop.
Approval of the trade pact would provide an economic boost for Nebraska by expanding the South Korean market for American beef and pork. The American Meat Institute estimates the pact would increase U.S. meat exports by $2.1 billion and create 27,425 American jobs. The agreement would gradually eliminate the 40 percent tariff on American beef over 15 years.
There apparently is considerable support for the proposed agreement in Congress, but the measure remains stalled because of political machinations involving both Democrats and Republicans.
House Republicans and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., are dragging their feet because they want the Obama administration to link the Korean agreement to similar pacts with Panama and Columbia. Support from Baucus is important because of his role as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Senate Republicans have complicated matters further by threatening to block confirmation of a new commerce secretary or other trade-related appointments unless all three pacts are brought up for a vote.
This game of chicken is yet another chapter in a story that has dragged on since the Bush administration signed agreements with the three countries and Peru in 2007. Congress approved the pact with Peru, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked the other three pacts from a vote.
The trade agreements have languished ever since. Hopes were raised for progress on the Korean agreement when President Obama last year reopened negotiations. There was speculation that a revised agreement might be ready to sign when Obama visited Seoul last year. The effort, however, fell short.
In terms of economic impact, the agreement with South Korea dwarfs the pacts with Columbia and Panama.
Important as the small trade agreements may be, it would be foolish for the United States to let the Korean trade agreement slip through its fingers. The members of Congress who are holding up approval of the Korean agreement run the risk of playing into the hands of trade protectionist Democrats who want to see all of the agreements stall out.
Vilsack was right to shine a spotlight on the economic importance of the Korean trade pact. Congress played too many games with the proposal. It’s time to put the agreement in place before Australia gets a long-term competitive advantage.