Negotiator talks about prospects for trade deal


Issue Date: September 7, 2016
By Ching Lee
Darci Vetter, chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, speaks to California agricultural leaders about the prospects for a congressional vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. To her right is California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger; Jim Vietheer, president of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau; and Charlotte Mitchell, executive director of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau.
Photo/Ching Lee

A top U.S. agricultural trade negotiator says "ample time" remains to move the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement forward during the "lame duck" congressional session, but it will be up to Congress to push it through.

In a meeting with California agricultural leaders last week, Darci Vetter, chief agricultural negotiator with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, encouraged California farmers and ranchers to make their case "in a very personal way" to their congressional representatives about why the 12-nation trade deal matters to agriculture.

Vetter's visit comes as the Obama administration is making its pitch to ratify the TPP after the November general election but before a new Congress convenes in January. She said now is the time for supporters of the TPP to tell members of Congress about the benefits of the trade agreement, particularly about how having consistent access to foreign and new markets helps to boost farm incomes.

"The goal is to have TPP approved, and we continue to push very hard to make that happen," she said. "California Farm Bureau—and Farm Bureau in general—is important in that effort because, frankly, there hasn't ever been a major trade agreement that passed without support from agriculture."

U.S. agriculture, she noted, is "clearly one of the biggest winners" in the deal, adding that Farm Bureau's own analysis supports that assessment. High-value markets such as Japan and the growing middle class of TPP member-countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam present "a huge opportunity" for U.S. agricultural exporters, she said. The preferential market access that TPP members receive "could make us the supplier of choice for these really pivotal economies in the globe," she added.

The TPP currently includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, but Vetter said the idea was always for other nations to join. That includes Pacific Rim countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea, all of which are going through their own demographic transformations and are "huge opportunities for U.S. agriculture and for California in particular," she said.

Vetter emphasized that the farm sector, which has been largely united in supporting liberalized trade and the TPP, has "a real story to tell." She stressed the importance of having agricultural leaders tell "that tangible story about how the benefits of trade reverberate throughout congressional districts, wherever they are."

"That's a part of the trade story that doesn't get told very often, just how many times those benefits multiply throughout economies," she said. "I think farmers and ranchers are uniquely equipped to tell that story because they all are traders; they all participate in global commodity markets."

But she acknowledged the rhetoric against trade and the TPP during this presidential campaign "has been difficult to deal with." Both major presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have said they don't support the TPP.

Because it's an election year, CFBF President Paul Wenger said timing has always been the big hurdle for moving TPP through Congress. But after meeting with Vetter, he said she seemed "very positive that it could get done." And despite the "dysfunction in Washington, D.C.," he said "maybe there's a chance" it could happen after the election.

"I think President Obama sees this as one of those things that could be a bit of a legacy for him," Wenger said. "From our perspective, for all the things that he's done that we don't like, this is something that would be very beneficial for business in general and agriculture in particular, especially here in California, which is so dependent upon trade."

Vetter said the path for TPP will have to be House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "being ready to push it." Though both leaders in recent days have ruled out a lame-duck congressional vote on the agreement, Vetter said Ryan "has really left that door open." McConnell has said the Senate will not take up the vote. But Vetter said members of the Kentucky Farm Bureau, in speaking to McConnell, have characterized the Senate leader as less uncompromising on prospects of a TPP vote.

In the meantime, Vetter said "candid conversations" are taking place between the administration and members of Congress about the status of outstanding issues they still have concerns about, one of which is with patent protection for pharmaceutical drugs.

"There has been some progress," she said. "It is not resolved yet, but we do continue to work with it."

She rejected the notion of renegotiating any parts of the trade agreement, saying that while the TPP is not perfect, she is "confident that we pushed the envelope to get the best deal possible" and that it achieves the "appropriate balance."

Vetter also warned of the "huge foreign policy implications" for not passing the TPP, "if we got all these countries to make these sacrifices and then we left them at the altar."

"That will no doubt impact our influence in that region for years and years to come," she said.

CFBF First Vice President Jamie Johansson said the concern for agriculture is what that would do to U.S. relationships with countries on which agricultural exporters already depend, and whether those countries would turn elsewhere for farm products. For California, he noted the importance of Vietnam as a growing market for walnuts, ordering more shipments as China cuts back on its imports.

He stressed that Farm Bureau and American farmers could play a major role in pushing for the TPP at the grassroots level. That means meeting with "detractors and people who are a little concerned."

"It's going to take voters—our members in those districts—to move congressional representatives and assure them that the TPP is the right vote for the farmers and ranchers in their districts," Johansson said. "That's the role we play in getting TPP passed. It's our ability to get the information out there and tell personal stories."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.