Agriculture secretary presses NC to support trade

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is touting the benefits of trade in North Carolina as he makes the rounds promoting a White House push for more authority in negotiating trade agreements.

North Carolina agriculture exports exceed $3.7 billion, according to the USDA. Forty-one percent of all agriculture sales in North Carolina are tied to exports and more than 25,000 N.C. jobs are dependent on those trade opportunities, Vilsack said.

“It’s a very, very important opportunity for us to finish these trade negotiations and do it in a way that is good for American workers and good for American farmers.”

Earlier this month, congressional leaders reached an agreement on a bipartisan bill to give President Barack Obama more authority in negotiating trade agreements. The Senate Finance Committee late Wednesday endorsed the proposal, known as Trade Promotion Authority, that would require Congress to vote treaties up or down without amending them.

As leaders negotiate the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, the Obama administration is pressing hard to win support for trade in Congress. There are concerns among the more conservative factions of the Republican party about granting Obama more power. But the greater challenge is likely Democrats.

Much of the White House’s lobbying is focused on convincing Democratic colleagues who are concerned about the impacts past trade deals have had on U.S. jobs, particularly blue collar jobs. A broad coalition of labor, community and environmental groups oppose the measure.

Labor groups argue that trade agreements help large corporations, but do little to help workers. They cite the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in California, Texas and Michigan, among other states, that were lost as production factories moved to Mexico following the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Last month, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution opposing Obama’s request for trade-promotion authority, commonly called “fast-track” authority, out of concern that negotiated trade agreements would compromise worker rights.

Vilsack said he understood the concerns, but that TPP will have enforcement measures that NAFTA did not have. And he said U.S. negotiators need fast-track authority at the negotiating table to assure foreign countries that Congress won’t try to meddle after a deal is signed.

Vilsack said most high value agriculture products in North Carolina would benefit from TPP. He cited Japanese interest in pork and high demand for U.S. grown soybeans. Some 40 percent of all soybeans in the United States are exported. North Carolina exports more than $300 million in soybeans each year and is the second highest exporter of pork and poultry products in the country, according to the USDA.

“One would expect and anticipate that North Carolina farmers would experience more business opportunities,” he said.