WASHINGTON – Curt Hanson sat in the U.S. Commerce Department’s main auditorium after accepting a presidential exporter award Monday and puzzled over why so many members of Congress and the public oppose foreign trade agreements.
“For those of us with boots on the ground, there are so many reasons for U.S. businesses to be involved in exporting,” the co-founder of the Edina-based Trade Acceptance Group Ltd. said. “People here in Washington, I don’t know where they get their information. Somehow, they think trade and trade promotion are not good for our economy.”
Hanson spoke less than a week after an ugly procedural fight in the U.S. Senate over discussions of a trade promotion authority bill. The legislation is designed to give the White House power to negotiate two huge trade deals — the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership and the 28-country Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
With nearly two decades brokering foreign trade deals for small and midsize businesses from offices in Minnesota and Illinois, Hanson thinks “Congress is completely detached from reality on free trade.”
Labor unions who say earlier free-trade agreements killed U.S. jobs, as well as environmental and human rights groups who object to a lack of pollution regulations and poor working conditions in some of the nations involved in negotiations, beg to differ.
To understand how far apart the sides are, consider NAFTA, the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.
Hanson calls it a success that opened many new markets to American products. The unions call it a failure that left too many Americans unemployed.
Trade Acceptance Group facilitated $800 million in exports in 2014. Its business is growing about 15 percent per year. So Hanson is miffed, if not surprised, by the ongoing foreign trade fight in the nation’s capital. Still, as the Obama administration continued its foreign trade promotion blitz at Monday’s “E” awards, guys like Hanson admit that supporters of free trade — including the White House — are struggling to frame the message.
“There is a general misunderstanding in the public space about who benefits from increased trade,” Antwaun Griffin, a deputy assistant secretary in Commerce’s International Trade Administration, conceded.
Speaking in the 20 states where his company has clients, Hanson addresses that misunderstanding head-on.
“Joe Public hears that we’re shipping jobs offshore,” Hanson explained. “In our business, we try to correct that perception.”
He was surprised last week when Democratic senators, including Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, decided to “turn on President Obama” and block debate on a trade promotion authority bill. Klobuchar and Franken continued to vote against debate even as Senate leaders from both parties struck a deal to allow a trade promotion bill to come to the floor.
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker used the “E” awards ceremony to recommit to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is in its final stages. Pritzker pointed out that the Asia-Pacific region now has 578 million middle-class consumers with the number expected to rapidly grow to more than 3 billion.
“No one should ignore that market,” Pritzker said. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the best way for U.S. businesses to gain “access to the fastest-growing market in the world.”
But Klobuchar and Franken both continue to express concerns about enforcing foreign trade deals, pointing to jobs lost on Minnesota’s Iron Range because of steel subsidized by foreign governments being dumped into the U.S. market.
The senators, along with some Democratic House members from Minnesota, have voiced doubts about job creation in the U.S. as a result of the trade agreements.
Franken has said that extremely low wages paid by some foreign countries that are parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership could put U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage and eventually cost, not create, American jobs.
For now, the fate of the new free-trade agreements remains uncertain.
That had Hanson heading back to Minnesota with his “E” award and the feeling that many members of Congress had “lost touch” with their business constituencies. He is not sure how that happened, but he knew where it left him.
“I have to think,” he said, “that at the 11th hour they will come to some sort of revelation.”