News Column

Time Right for New Trade Deals, Business Roundtable CEOs Say

Feb 22, 2013

Tim Devaney

The United States should take advantage of a rare burst of momentum on the international trade front before it dissipates, a group of top American CEOs said Thursday.

Business Roundtable officials, in a briefing with reporters to discuss the group's trade priorities, welcomed the recent news that the U.S. is negotiating a new trade deal with the European Union and said the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with a group of Pacific Rim trading partners could be nailed down by the end of the year.

But to do so the Obama administration needs to find a new trade ambassador and Congress needs to give the president the authority to negotiate more deals, the group warned.

"Expanding America's access to international markets is, we think, vital to the U.S. economy, and in many respects the highest priority for Congress and the administration," said John Engler, president of the Roundtable, which includes executives from some of the country's biggest corporations. "We think that's a sure way to strengthen the economy."

U.S. exports now account for 14 percent of GDP and nearly half of those exports go to the country's top 20 trading partners. President Obama in late 2010 announced a goal of doubling U.S. exports as a key part of the country's recovery from the Great Recession.

In 2011, the Obama administration pushed through trade deals negotiated by the George W. Bush administration with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, but there have been no major new deals since Mr. Obama took office.

The business group said expanding trade was one area where Mr. Obama could find support from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

"I think the president has a strong bipartisan majority in Congress on most trade issues," Mr. Engler said. "As divided as the government is, when it comes to trade, we've gotten quite a few things done on a bipartisan basis. None of these were easy, but they did get done."

That's why it's so important for Congress to give Mr. Obama the authority to negotiate trade deals with foreign countries, Mr. Engler said. This process, called "trade promotion authority," allows the president to negotiate trade deals directly with other countries, with Congress only having an up-or-down vote on the final product.

"That's something that I wish we didn't have to keep renewing," Mr. Engler said. "I wish we could have an authority that would be there for the president to have."

Mr. Engler also said it's important for the U.S. to get a new trade ambassador in the Cabinet. Ron Kirk, the former U.S. trade representative who oversaw the final negotiations with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, left the Cabinet in January.

"We need the person in place, and they need to get busy," Mr. Engler said.

During his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama announced that the U.S. would begin negotiating a trade deal with the European Union.

Business Roundtable leaders said they are excited about the possibilities. The U.S. and EU account for 45 percent of the world's GDP combined.

"It would be a win-win for jobs, for income and for growth on both sides of the Atlantic," Mr. Engler said. "We've long thought this made sense."

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