Lincoln Journal Star: Campaign for trade deals comes to Nebraska

Campaign for trade deals comes to Nebraska


VALLEY — When it comes to presidential elections, Nebraska tends to take a back seat to its neighbor to the east, Iowa.

But there’s another campaign warming up, and for this one, Nebraska is front and center: the upcoming congressional approval of trade deals being negotiated with Asia-Pacific countries and the European Union.

President Barack Obama’s chief adviser on international trade and investment, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, spent Tuesday in the Cornhusker state to promote those deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Accompanied by Democratic Congressman Brad Ashford of Omaha, Froman held a roundtable discussion with about 30 Nebraska agricultural leaders at the Ueberrhein family farm near Valley, then toured Valmont Industries’ pivot and irrigation equipment plant.

Media were not allowed to attend the roundtable or the tour, but were invited to interview Froman and Ashford between events. Froman and Ashford then briefly spoke with third-generation farmer Ryan Ueberrhein and looked over the equipment stored in his barn.

Labor groups have panned the massive 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying it will continue policies that allow corporations to move capital offshore and ship goods back to America, resulting in trade deficits and falling domestic wages. Last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a 30-minute speech in opposition to it at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

On Tuesday, Froman said the agreements will benefit Nebraska by opening markets for export goods, including soybeans, corn, beef, pork and machinery. Expanded markets mean more demand, better prices and more jobs.

“Through these trade agreements, we’re going to level the playing field,” Froman said.

“Right now over 80 percent of the products we are importing from (Trans-Pacific Partnership) countries come in duty-free. There is zero tariff on them. And yet we face duties of anywhere from 35 to 70, and in some cases up to 400 percent, on some of our products.”

The Asia-Pacific middle class is expected to grow from about 540 million people to more than 3 billion in the next 15 years. Those consumers and countries represent a huge market for American food, consumer products, manufacturing equipment and technology, he said.

While the final agreements have not yet been presented to Congress, Ashford said he is confident they will benefit Nebraska and will address concerns that have been raised over issues such as currency manipulation, labor standards and environmental standards.

“We’re doing a good job in Nebraska creating jobs, but this will push us further faster,” Ashford said.

After visiting Nebraska, Froman planned to return to Washington to push for Congress to give Obama trade powers, called Trade Promotion Authority, that would fast-track the agreements. Requests for those powers have gotten lukewarm reception from some lawmakers.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told the Des Moines Register this week that Obama has not done enough to reach out to reluctant Democrats in Congress to rally them.

Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen said the trade deals campaign, like many others, is full of empty promises and politics. Hansen attended the ag leadership meeting with Froman.

“Every time we do a free trade agreement, we have all this hype before it’s approved,” Hansen said in a phone interview. "We have all these promises about what is going to happen, then after it’s over nobody wants to keep track of the numbers because it never performs as promised.

“If you look at the last three years for the Korean Free Trade Agreement … U.S. exports to Korea are at best flat. Beef is down 5 percent, pork is down 2 percent, poultry down 41 percent and grains and feeds down 21 percent. And yet Korean ag exports to the United States are up 28 percent.”

Hansen said the U.S. trade deficit increased to $505 billion in 2014, slowing overall economic growth.

Both Gov. Pete Rickets and Nebraska Ag Director Greg Ibach have voiced support for the trade agreements.

“Nebraska’s exports have nearly tripled in the last 10 years, and these two initiatives will greatly aid us in further trade expansion," Ibach, who attended the roundtable, said in an email. "These agreements include some of our largest export markets and increasing global market access is one of our top priorities.”

In 2014, Nebraska exported $7.9 billion in goods, an increase of 238 percent, or $5.5 billion, from 2004.

Canada received the biggest chunk, $2.2 billion, followed by Mexico at $1.3 billion, Japan at $735 million, China at $615 million and South Korea at $358 million.

Nebraska is the fifth-largest exporter of agricultural goods in the U.S.