A Big Week for Trade Policy

Do you ever have a week when it feels like the world’s events are all around you? WCIT President Eric Schinfeld feels like that every day, but for the rest of us, it’s rare that every news item relates directly to what we’re working on. For those of us working in trade policy, last week was exactly like that. For those of you who aren’t as glued to the trade policy happenings, don’t worry – WCIT’s got you covered (as always).

Here’s a recap of the top things you should know about that happened in the trade world last week:

Information Technology Agreement: The ITA, a trade agreement currently under negotiation in the WTO, would eliminate tariffs on technology products traded between the 54 countries party to the agreement. Tariffs on everything from GPS devices and software to video game consoles would be slashed, covering more than $800 billion a year in technology trade and lowering costs for manufacturers and consumers. Last week, a major breakthrough was announced when China agreed to phase out tariffs on many goods from its sensitive list, including ones significant to U.S. companies. With so many IT, medical device and manufacturing companies located in Washington, a finalized ITA would be a huge economic win for our state.

Trans-Pacific Partnership: Last week marked President Obama’s target deadline for wrapping up the TPP negotiations, but no agreement was reached. However, TPP negotiators did meet on the sidelines of the APEC Summit and claimed significant progress. An op-ed by WCIT President Eric Schinfeld emphasized the urgency of completing a high-standard TPP. This urgency is especially true because China is making progress on their proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which could potentially be a more inclusive rival to the TPP.

WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement: The WTO TFA would expedite the movement and clearance of globally traded goods and would simplify customs and compliance procedures. The TFA has been stuck ever since India refused to support the package in July due to concerns over rules on food stockpiling and subsidy programs. In bilateral talks, the U.S. and India came to an agreement last week that clarified the length of a “peace clause” that allows qualifying developing nations to utilize their existing subsidy and stockpiling programs until a final agreement on the programs can be reached. WTO members plan to meet on November 26 to approve the agreement and get the ball rolling on the TFA.

West Coast ports labor negotiations: You’ve probably heard by now that there is a serious risk of labor unrest at West Coast ports threatening the entire U.S. economy. The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents terminal operators and cargo carriers, and International Longshore and Workers Union (ILWU), which represents dock workers, have not been able to come to an agreement on a labor contract.  While parties continue to negotiate, we’ve already seen negative impacts on port productivity and reliability, which is especially problematic during this busy holiday and harvest season. Washington state has a tremendous amount to lose if our ports don’t bounce back to capacity quickly, so it’s urgent that both sides come to an agreement as soon as possible on a new labor contract.

Trade Promotion Authority: Over 200 businesses and organizations, including WCIT, sent a letter to congressional leadership last week urging them to quickly pass a TPA bill so that trade agreements like the TPP and TTIP can move forward. While there is a chance that TPA could be voted on during the lame duck session, it’s looking more likely that it will be voted on early next year.

WCIT 2014 Washington Trade Conference:  Of course, the most important development in global trade policy was last week’s annual WCIT conference! Our largest-ever annual event brought over 300 business leaders and elected officials together to discuss the top opportunities and challenges to Washington state’s international competitiveness. Freight mobility and infrastructure investment seemed to be the unofficial theme of the day, with U.S. Department of Transportation Undersecretary for Policy Peter Rogoff commenting that freight tonnage in the U.S. is expected to grow 85 percent in the next 15 years, so it is imperative we make critical investments now.  Attendees also got to hear presentations on the new Seaport Alliance by Port of Seattle CEO Ted Fick, Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire and Port of Tacoma Commissioner Clare Petrich, as well as a great speech by U.S. Senator Patty Murray, who pledged to push for further long-term reforms to the Harbor Maintenance Tax.

The final message of the day came from a panel discussion featuring U.S. Representatives Derek Kilmer, Rick Larsen and Suzan DelBene, moderated by former U.S. Representative Norm Dicks. They asked trade stakeholders to “speak up and be specific” on the trade policies issues that we need their help with; they also continued to ask for specific stories as to how trade policies are impacting our employers’ and state’s competitiveness.

Whew, that’s quite a week in trade! At WCIT we’re finally catching our breath, and we hope this blog post will be helpful in clarifying all the recent happenings on the trade front for you, too!

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