WASHINGTON — When Kurt Tong visits Minnesota on Tuesday, he will be pursuing a political strategy to get Congress to pass a controversial new trade agreement, the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Tong, the country's principal deputy assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, will not meet with politicians. He will go instead to the people he believes will benefit most from the embattled trade pact.
"When we go to places like Minneapolis," Tong told the Star Tribune in an interview, "what we're doing is making the case directly to constituencies who are affected."
As the Obama administration pushes an economic agreement that the president wants to be a signature of his administration, the White House is hoping to leverage the support of businesses to convince reluctant politicians.
Tong's trip to the Twin Cities came at the behest of the Minnesota District Export Council, which includes companies like Andersen Windows, Bremer Bank and Amex Inc. The council describes itself as a "private, nonprofit organization that brings together experienced international business people who provide guidance and assistance in international markets." The council's interest in passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, better known as TPP, is evident in its mission.
Likewise, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce officials, with whom Tong will also meet, are vested in TPP passage on behalf of their members.
The subject matter listed on the itinerary of each meeting leaves little doubt about the theme: "Expand business overseas."
"We expect an active dialogue," Minnesota Chamber President Doug Loon said of the session with Tong. "We want to take what we learn and communicate it to the delegation."
TPP is controversial enough that many of Minnesota's U.S. senators and representatives have been noncommital about their support, saying they want to study the agreement in detail. In a statement to the Star Tribune, Democratic Sen. Al Franken spoke of "serious concerns."
Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan has campaigned aggressively against TPP as a job killer in his northern Minnesota district. Nolan has linked TPP to job losses among miners on the Iron Range, even though some experts say those losses stem from China's economic slowdown. Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison are also solid "no" votes if the pact comes to the House floor.
Even normally enthusiastic trade advocates like Rep. Erik Paulsen have hedged, a spokesman saying Monday that the Republican is "still evaluating the agreement."
TPP has been a whipping boy for would-be presidential candidates of both parties, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned Obama not to send the trade deal to Capitol Hill for a vote before the presidential election.
Meanwhile, the list of major business groups backing the trade agreement grows. The Business Roundtable, an organization of CEOs including those from Minnesota's 3M, Ameriprise Financial, Medtronic PLC and Target Corp., are on board. So is the National Association of Manufacturers, whose board includes representatives from Minnesota-based Cargill and Ecolab.
Beyond big national trade groups, the administration is looking to individual businesses of every size for support, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said in answer to a Star Tribune question at a recent news conference.
That is because employees of those companies vote for members of the House and Senate.
As he headed for Minnesota, Tong acknowledged the challenges of selling a trade deal in an "echo chamber" of political attacks. Many concern poorer countries on the Pacific Rim. TPP members like Vietnam and Malaysia don't pay workers as well as the U.S. and have not enacted as many environmental protections.
"The problem for us politically is, frankly, a lack of confidence in the U.S.," Tong said.
The U.S. "took great steps to protect labor and environmental standards" in TPP negotiations, Tong said.
In Minnesota, Loon said there needs to be a "fundamental grass roots message" that lets voters understand the value of TPP as a basic "economic development driver" that helps the state's manufacturers and agricultural interests. But he concedes that "people don't understand the importance of the global marketplace."
The inevitability of a worldwide economy is the other message that Tong and others from the administration bring. The net impact is positive, they say. But economic disruptions are unavoidable. Trade agreements are the country's best hedge.
Globalization "is happening," said Tong. "It's not something we can stop."