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Congress clears path for expanded trade opportunities

Connie Tipton

Connie Tipton is president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association. She contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

Congress has finally been moving key legislation and dealing with important issues. But just when we thought things were gaining momentum and getting into some sort of order, all went awry with the trade vote in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month. You’re probably already glad you don’t work with Congress every day, but the maneuvers employed for just that one vote likely will reinforce that feeling.

Here’s a quick recap. The Republican leadership in the House tried to get bipartisan support for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation, which would give Congress oversight authority during trade negotiations but only allow an up-or-down vote on the final agreements with no amendments. President Obama supported TPA down to the wire, even going to the Hill for the congressional baseball game the night before the vote to personally lobby Democratic members. (This was his first appearance at a congressional baseball game during his tenure as president, by the way.) What ensued the next day on the House floor was a histrionic breakdown of House Democrats, led by their leader, Nancy Pelosi (CA), against the wishes of the Obama White House.

Labor unions are largely to blame for this lack of support. They drove Democrats to oppose new trade agreements and TPA because the legislation would make it easier to negotiate those agreements and make their passage in Congress more likely. Labor’s grip on the Democrats emanates from serious threats that those voting “no” will be punished by withholding generous campaign donations in the future. Yes, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 11 percent of workers are labor union members, the unions still carry a big stick in Washington — and they aren’t afraid to use it. And, as an aside, they have some of the nicest real estate in town near the White House and the Capitol, which helps to give you an idea of their relative wealth and clout vis-a-vis most trade advocates.

The trade vote was complicated, as are many things here in Washington, D.C., with the “majority rules” process. The specific TPA provisions actually passed narrowly with a 219 to 211 vote, but a separate provision known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which would continue to provide aid to American workers displaced by global trade, was voted down, 126 to 302, with the “no” vote led by Nancy Pelosi. This rejection of assistance to workers displaced by global trade is ironic since the TAA provisions are largely in the bill to please the Democrats. Because TPA and the TAA provision were tied together in the Senate-passed bill, nothing can move directly to the president for a signature unless the same coupling receives approval from the House.

The House and Senate leadership quickly huddled with the president to try to figure out a way forward. They agreed to move TPA again through the House, send it to the Senate for a vote, and have the Senate attach TAA to a bill that already passed the House, so both bills can move to the president’s desk for signing.

Despite all of the gyrations leading up to final passage, TPA cleared the Senate in a final vote of 60-38. The bill will now be sent to the president for his signature.

A lot is at stake for U.S. dairy producers, manufacturers, suppliers and marketers as our dairy exports continue to be a major success story for industry growth. Exports of U.S. dairy products grew from $1 billion in 2003 to more than $7 billion in 2014. And those trade opportunities can grow faster and farther by expanding our access to markets with lower trade barriers.

Two major trade agreements with positive prospects for U.S. dairy are currently being negotiated. The Trans-Pacific Partnership would bring together the United States with 11 other countries rimming the Pacific, including Japan and Canada, both important opportunities for trade expansion in dairy products. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would pave the way for expanded trade between the European Union and the United States. Passage of the TPA legislation gives Congress a process for oversight of the agreements as well as an up-or-down vote on the final provisions.

Not everyone watches the progress of legislation with the same interest as those of us in Washington, but it is important to get involved in the process when issues make a difference for your business. As Congress heads home for the July 4 recess and an extended time back home during August, consider inviting your representatives to visit your facilities and get to know more about your business. And be sure to thank them if they voted in support of moving trade forward.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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