It’s Just Lunch (About Trade Policy)

Last week represented about as “middle of summer” as you can get. The sun was shining and many people were on vacation, so the last thing you’d want to do is put on a major work event. So, of course, WCIT chose to host its annual Summer Trade Luncheon. (That seems to be a pattern for what we do; previous WCIT events have been held on Veterans’ Day and the Monday before Thanksgiving because, hey, at least there’s no competing events going on!)

Happily, the WCIT luncheon was a sold-out affair, with close to 150 (non-vacationing) business leaders and elected officials from across the state of Washington – all gathering to hear “The Trade Policy View from DC,” a panel discussion with some of Washington, DC’s top trade policy advocates. Jon Gold from the National Retail Federation, David Weller from WilmerHale, Chris Wenk from the US Chamber and David Thomas from the Business Roundtable traveled to Seattle to share their “inside the Beltway” perspective on the prospects for trade policy over the next six months and beyond.

As I “jokingly” said at the end of the event, “even I” learned something new about trade policy. Our panelists were truly spectacular in their insights and explanations, and those of you who were out galavanting in the sun really missed something. And so, for the sun-galavanters and others who couldn’t make it, here are my top three takeaways from the event:

3) There Are “Difficult Trade Policy Issues” and There are “Hard Ones”: When asked about the obstacles to successful completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, some of our panelists started talking about the “21st century issues” as the toughest ones. You know the list: privacy, state-owned enterprises, cross-border data flows and all sorts of other issues that past trade negotiations have mainly been silent on. So, of course, those are really difficult issues to resolve, since there isn’t a clear roadmap and it is going to take some serious compromising to address. But Jon Gold of the National Retail Federation made the point that some of the more traditional issues are just as hard to resolve in these negotiations, like rules of origin for apparel which is the crux of Vietnam’s engagement in TPP. It’s an important point: just because TPP is trying to be a 21st century trade agreement doesn’t mean that 20th century issues (or even older, when it comes to trade in textiles) aren’t still major decision points for negotiations.

2) There’s a Path Toward Progress on China: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve been at a loss about what to do on U.S.-China trade policy. Not that WCIT doesn’t have a very clear idea of what the issues are, but so much of our work is focused on legislative advocacy and there’s not a bill that Congress can pass that magically solves most of our trade concerns (like getting China to protect our IP more). But our panelists David Weller gave a fantastic answer to this question during our discussion, laying out a number of clear action steps that include:

  • Focus on TPP, which – if successfully negotiated – creates a clear bar for US expectations of trade policy standards for Asia-Pacific countries (many folks have thought of TPP as “all about China” for a while…we referenced that at the beginning of our blog post on TPP way back in December 2011!)
  • Take advantage of direct negotiations like the bilateral investment treaty talks and the Strategic & Economic Dialogue
  • Don’t forget about the WTO, where the U.S. has successfully brought many, many cases against unfair Chinese trade practices

I should point out that the rest of the panelists were left speechless after David’s brilliant and comprehensive answer, but that may also be that I told them we were out of time.

1) Trade Promotion Authority is the Key To Everything Else: OK, so I already knew this, but it doesn’t make it any less important, which is why I wanted to be sure to list it number one. All of the great trade negotiations going on right now – TPP, TTIP, the WTO Services negotiation, the Information Technology Agreement, etc. – won’t amount to anything if they can’t get passed through Congress. And given the current state of affairs in Congress, expeditiously and successfully passing a trade agreement without Trade Promotion Authority is – to refer back to #3 – both difficult and hard. TPA is one of those issues that the average person on the street has no idea about, and it doesn’t get the press of a major trade negotiation; there’s probably even a lack of understanding by relatively informed people about what TPA does, which is simply set a list of criteria that – if met – guarantees an up or down vote in Congress. The Business Roundtable has put out some excellent resources on this issue, and there’s a new coalition that’s been created to advocate for its passage. WCIT is going to be spending a lot of time this fall participating in the coalition, and helping to educate our business and elected leaders about the essential nature of TPA.

I’m sure that there are plenty of other takeaways, and I encourage event attendees to leave other thoughts in the comment section. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who attended and to our panelists, and special thanks to our sponsors: United Airlines, Eli Lilly & Company, the Boeing Company and We Work for Health. See you again next summer for the next WCIT Summer Luncheon…maybe we’ll do it on the Fourth of July next time to really challenge ourselves to draw a crowd.

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