The USTR Pulls An All-Nighter

With only minutes before a key deadline, the Bush administration formally notified Congress last night that a deal had been reached with South Korea on a free trade agreement. The Office of the United States Trade Representative’s press release (which contains not many details and plenty of the usual mercantalist, all-exports-all-the-time rhetoric) can be viewed here.

As expected, rice was not included in the agreement. Korean negotiators had been adamant that rice, an extremely sensitive (i.e., protected) sector in Korea, was not on the table for negotiation and that a deal would be impossible if the United States insisted on pushing for access to the Korean rice market. On that basis, the Americans evidently decided to drop the rice issue.

Rice was never so much a concern, though, as beef. U.S. beef has been denied access to Korea on food safety grounds since late 2003, when BSE was found in beef originating in Canada. Although the issue was not formally part of the FTA negotiations, and thus was not resolved in the agreement itself, it has the potential to scupper it if lawmakers link their approval of the deal to resolution of the beef dispute. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has made it clear that his support for the Korean FTA depends on a full re-opening of the Korean market to U.S. beef. (The Ranking Member of that Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.-IA), was somewhat more measured in his comments).

Similarly, Sen Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sees that reducing Korean tariffs (albeit over a long phase-out period for trucks) on U.S. autos and a “restructuring” of the Korean auto tax structure is not enough: her press release insists that she will “do everything in [her] power to defeat this agreement and ensure that any future fast-track authority includes provisions guaranteeing that American businesses and workers can get a fair deal”. Sen. Stabenow does not say what specific measures would assuage her concerns, although one suspects that she is offended at the USTR’s refusal to specify minimum guaranteed sales targets.

In short: yes, the USTR met the deadline of concluding the deal so that it can be considered under fast-track authority. But its passage is far from secured.

More broadly, though, the statements of these lawmakers, especially if it is a taste of what is to come, should worry free-traders everywhere. While bilateral and regional trade agreements are, at best, only the third most optimal way of liberalising trade, the deal between South Korea and the United States was one of the more worthwhile agreements of this administration. And if Congress is going to base support for agreements on its ability to manage trade in certain sectors, then the trade agenda is in serious trouble.