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A brief Q&A with the U.S. trade representative

Ron Kirk Ambassador Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas whom President Obama tapped to be the U.S. trade representative, has solid credentials as a free-trader -- more solid, alas, than the man he works for. While in Southern California to speak to a state legislators' association, small businesses and studio executives, he dropped by to chat with The Times' editorial board, offering a status report on pending trade agreements and an overview of the administration's trade strategy. He was circumspect -- trade talks are done in secret, after all (more on that later) -- so the session was long on explanation and short on revelation. Some of the notable quotes appear after the jump; scroll down for links to audio recordings from the session.

Kirk declined to get into specifics regarding the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that the U.S. has been negotiating for three years with selected trading partners. He acknowledged the demands for more disclosure from some quarters, but he said secrecy goes with the territory:

We have been more aggressive than any other country in getting our partners to agree to release in some cases draft text earlier than we have before, and we do understand that there are some groups in particular that always want more. But I will tell you, we are doing everything we can to fully comply with the president’s directive [to disclose as much as possible], while at the same time live within a world in which discretion and protecting and the confidentiality of the information given to us by the partners that we sit across the table from is essential to us getting the desired outcome that will help all American businesses.

Some consumer groups have complained that the copyright industries have too much influence over the process, but Kirk said that wasn't the case. "We give an open ear to every group that has an opinion, a thought on this.… We are very careful to make sure that we hear from all of the relevant constituents." And though he wouldn't directly address the concern that the treaty is a back-door attempt by copyright holders to reduce consumers' rights, he noted that lawmakers have made it clear that he can't stray far, if at all, from existing U.S. statutes. "Congress always makes it plain to me, 'We don’t want you creating rights through trade agreements greater than what we have in the United States.' " That's particularly true on labor and intellectual property issues, he said (although it's worth remembering that Congress has historically been far more inclined to strengthen copyrights than to weaken them):

There is an extreme sensitivity in Congress that we do not subvert the intent or will of Congress through trade law by what we agree to in treaties. Now, we also balance that against a reality. Our trading partners will often come to us and say, it’s sure hard for you to ask us to do more than what you’re willing to do in the United States. It is part science, but it is also part art, to make sure we address the right need.

On the pending free trade agreement with Colombia:

There continues to be very strong concern among a very large number of members of Congress over the continued violence against labor leaders, farm organizers, journalists and others. We have been very candid in addressing those concerns with the Colombians....

I do believe that Colombia and President [Alvaro] Uribe have actually made remarkable progress in addressing the issue of violence. I don’t know that enough Americans appreciate the fact that President Uribe represents a man whose father and brother were murdered by the drug cartels. This is not someone who takes the issue of violence lightly. But we do think there are structural reforms that Colombia can make that will help us make the case for them, at least in terms of having in place a judicial, legal mechanism that will allow them to prove that they’re serious about punishing those who exert that violence.

On the pending free-trade agreement with South Korea, which Kirk said is being held up by a dispute over U.S. automakers' access to the Korean market:

With the European Union essentially signing the free-trade agreement that we’ve worked on, I do think it creates an added sense of urgency to try to get that resolved sooner rather than later.

Kirk called the North American Free Trade Agreement an "extraordinary success." Nevertheless, he said, now that all tariffs have been effectively removed, the U.S. wants to look at other issues it may have with Mexico -- including environmental and labor concerns. Finally, on the World Trade Organization's seemingly endless (and fruitless) Doha round of talks, Kirk said developing nations have to do more to open their markets:

In order to be able to get Doha to a conclusion, we’re going to have to do something differently than what they tried the last three times and failed. We think using Doha not only as a development tool but as a true market-access opening tool, not only for the benefit of the U.S. but for all economies, is the best way to do it.

Now for the audio:

Americans' mixed feelings about trade

Three pending free trade pacts

The Panama FTA

The Colombia FTA

The South Korea FTA

The effect of the recession

The administration's strategic view

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement

Mexico and NAFTA

Brazil and the WTO Doha round

The WTO Doha round

Photo credit: Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

-- Jon Healey


Comments () | Archives (3)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Mitchell Young

It is interesting to note the zeal in pursuing 'free trade' accompanied by the zeal in pursuing "copyright infringement". After all, when you boil it down, what is copyright infringement but a huge restraint on trade?

andrew nelson

Anyone who would invest to grow business, and jobs, in the U.S., during this administration, with the arbitrary politics of this democrat regime, would put their investment at too great a risk. It is safer, and the outcomes more predictable, to invest in countries like China, Brazil, or India. Those countries are business friendly, and they promote business investment.

Dr. Alan Phillips

Thanks for the report on U.S. Trade representative Ron Kirk's recent Q and A with the LA Times Editorial Board. He discussed very little due to his observation that TRADE TALKS ARE DONE IN SECRET. He also referred to the North American Free Trade Agreement as an EXTRAORDINARY SUCCESS. He felt their might be environmental and labor issues that need to be discussed with Mexico.

I recently returned from a trip to Iowa where I had an opportunity to talk with farmers and voters concerned about free trade in Agricultural products. Although my comments are limited for farm products, I agree with Iowans that free trade matters must be fully disclosed to the American farmer and agricultural voters.

Recently, NASDA listed concerns with regard to NAFTA and they were far less cursory than mayor Kirk's comments to the LA Times Editorial Board. They are listed below and confirm the need for FULL DISCLOSURE TO THE AMERICAN AGRICULTURAL COMMUNITY;



The U.S. has been seeking approval to ship potatoes to Canada in bulk for processing. Canada mandates different disease testing procedures than those used on our side of the border. Canadian Food Inspection and AMS have agreed to meet with interested State and Provincial representatives on the testing issue in the first quarter of 1999.

Seed certification
Differences between U.S. and Canadian rules impede trade, and it was agreed in the December 2 agricultural trade understanding to work on this problem. However, no mechanism has been established to do so.

Canadian and U.S. standards differ, and product pricing is not uniform, even after adjusting for the exchange rate. The U.S./Canadian understanding calls for an effort to assess the differences and move towards harmonization. USDA is organizing meetings on this subject.

Veterinary chemicals
U.S. farmers are concerned about residues in animals imported for slaughter in the United States, and about the possibility of "extra-label" uses of approved chemicals.

Dairy marketing
The United States is taking Canada to the WTO over subsidy elements in provincial dairy marketing arrangements.

Grain marketing
Non-transparency of Canadian Wheat Board operations, and monopoly aspects of its marketing arrangements, remain a major area of dispute between the two countries. Canada has moved slowly on recognizing U.S. states as free of Karnal bunt.

Forest and nursery products
Canadian plant quarantine rules in relation to pine shoot beetle have been a barrier to trade for nearby states.


Pre-clearance programs
The cost of pre-clearance inspection by Mexican officials in the United States is a burden on apple shipments from the two states that export to Mexico, and an insurmountable barrier for the rest. Mexico has proposed pre-clearance as a requirement for citrus exports from Florida.

AI Certification for poultry
Mexican rules requiring assurances of the absence of low-pathogenic avian influenza threatens an immediate closing of exports of many if not all poultry products.

Meat grading rules
Regulations in two or three states in northern Mexico operate as disguised barriers to trade, effectively blocking the export of U.S. beef.

Border infrastructure
Bottlenecks and red tape have a major impact on the flow of U.S. agricultural exports into Mexico. Some products can cross at only one location (e.g., swine). AMS has been conducting a Long Term Transportation Study which addresses some border issues, and there is funding in the recent Transportation Bill which could be used on border infrastructure.

Meat anti-dumping
Both pork and beef are potentially affected by anti-dumping cases brought by Mexican producer interests.

Grain testing rules
U.S. grain is imported with exceptions to published rules which are not, in the view of some USDA specialists, entirely based on sound science. The rules continue to be a source of concern.

Private commercial disputes
AMS is working with Mexican officials and the private sector on a Trade Dispute Resolution Commission on an arrangement like PACA to permit the fair settlement of disagreements affective fruit and vegetable trade. This might be expanded to cover other products as well.

Seed potatoes
Mexico accepts potatoes from Canada, but has yet to approve a protocol permitting seed potato imports from the United States.

Early warning on trade issues
USDA is putting together a proposal for a Consultative Committee which would address trade issues before they became major conflicts. There might be a role for state agricultural officials in advising or providing other systematic input within this structure.


Approval of genetically modified organisms for commercial planting is advancing at different rates in different countries, raising issues about border trade in seed (e.g., canola seed from Canada). "Nutriceuticals" are may be the biotech wave of the future.

Mexico has tended to insist on whole-state regions as far as plant pest status is concerned, although the United States has been willing to look at other defined geographical areas. Progress towards a common North American strategy on Asian Longhorn Beetle may point the way.

Pest risk assessment
There is a great shortage of resources to carry this out, as well as a lack of commonly-accepted methodologies. Under WTO rules, scientific risk assessments are the cornerstone of permissible quarantine and inspection protocols.

State-inspected meat products
The Administration proposes to permit interstate shipment of meat products produced under state inspection. This could have implications for trade with Mexico and Canada, both in relation to whether they would accept such products, and whether they might also seek similar changes in their respective inspection rules.

Organic foods
AMS will re-propose its rule within the next few months. Standards for "organic" food might be applied to food of non-U.S. origin, and certification of this food according to the U.S. standard is possible.

Country-of-origin labeling
This is the subject of a current GAO study. NASDA has supported labeling as a way of dealing with food safety issues. A related technical issue is that of tracing the movement of large animals.

Wildlife and disease transmission
Deer with TB, raccoons with rabies, and wildfowl with Newcastle disease do not seem to respect political borders. Control measures vary between countries, with substantial state responsibility and jurisdiction in the areas of wildlife management

The above concerns are listed from NASDA - WHO IS NASDA?
The National Association of State Department of Agriculture was founded in 1915.

Our mission is to represent the state departments of agriculture in the development, implementation, and communication of sound public policy and programs which support and promote the American agricultural industry, while protecting consumers and the environment.
NASDA is governed by a 10 member Board of Directors consisting of a five member Executive Committee; one At-Large member; and the presidents of the four NASDA regions.

Dr. Alan Phillips
Bloomington, IL



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