Former USTR Johnson: Ag needs to be sensitive to other sectors
The U.S. agriculture sector needs to be more sensitive to the problems that have occurred in U.S. manufacturing and technology due to trade liberalization, or risk being attacked because it has been the successful sector under trade agreements, Al Johnson, a former U.S. chief agriculture negotiator said during a Farm Foundation forum on trade today.
“Until a year ago we were cruising,“ said Johnson, who was chief agriculture negotiator from 2001 to 2005, during a panel discussion with Greg Doud, the current chief agriculture negotiator, Darci Vetter, who held the position from 2014 to 2016 during the Obama administration, and Richard Crowder who held it from 2006 to 2008, succeeding Johnson in the George W. Bush administration.
“Something happened in the other sectors that we weren’t sensitive to,” Johnson said.
Whether it was losing jobs or intellectual property or whether trade was the actual problem didn’t matter, he said, because “they felt abused by the same trading system that we were benefiting from. We were oblivious.”
When he negotiated agreements, Johnson said, he just kept pushing for more for agriculture with a view that it was the other sectors’ jobs to defend themselves. Now, he said, he asks “Is that sustainable?”
Congress passed the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement by only one vote, he noted. In the last election, he added, no candidate of either party ran on a traditional pro-trade position.
Is agriculture, he asked, telling a good story not just for agriculture but for the whole economy and other sectors?
The agriculture community has long argued that it is impossible to get a trade agreement through Congress without agriculture, but for agriculture to take advantage of its export opportunities agriculture may need to be concerned about whether people who don’t benefit from trade have “realistic opportunities” for jobs or job training or work study.
Johnson did not mention government trade adjustment assistance for companies and workers who are hurt by trade agreements, but in reaction to a question from the audience, Vetter noted she had negotiated trade adjustment provisions when she worked for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., but that the scope and money had been “too little, too late.”
The problem, Vetter said, is that TAA has been written to get trade agreements through Congress while the issue is that the United States needs to train its workforce for the global economy.
“The whole approach to our economic readiness as a country we have tied to trade, and it has left us unprepared. We need a more comprehensive approach,” Vetter said.