Thursday, February 14, 2013

trade tangle ahead

The United States and European Union have announced plans for talks on a giant trade agreement. Some preliminary talks have already been held, raising optimism that agreements can be reached on tough issues like trade in genetically modified agricultural products and intellectual property. Since the two economies are quite advanced and remaining tariffs are low, the disputes won't be about tariffs but about non tariff barriers like environmental and food safety regulations. Labor groups are less likely to oppose an agreement because both economies have high wages and strong environmental laws, unlike low-wage countries in Asia.

As usual, the Financial Times, now celebrating its 125th anniversary, has the best story on the proposed talks. What the story doesn't mention, however, is that no deal can be concluded, or even discussed very long, unless and until Congress passes a law granting Trade Promotion Authority, also called "fast-track," that guarantees a single up-or-down vote on the final agreement, with no amendments allowed. President Clinton asked for such authority but never got it; George W. Bush got it for four years, but it has since expired.

Nor does the story mention that the Obama administration still hasn't sorted out its organizational arrangement to do trade. The President proposed reorganization authority -- which Congress is usually reluctant to grant -- and said he would use it to create a Department of Trade, combining the Commerce Department, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative in the White House, and several export-promotion agencies. I don't think that's likely to be approved, but there's no clue how the administration will handle things otherwise.

The negotiators have a clear goal, but the American side lacks a clear institutional process to get the job done well.

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