The Commerce Department reported this week the U.S. trade deficit declined slightly in July as record exports of farm goods, autos and other products offset the highest foreign oil bill in nearly a year.
Agricultural exports, historically, are the lone bright spot in an otherwise gloomy U.S. trade picture. But farm imports also are soaring and the now razor-thin farm trade surplus is in jeopardy.
This week, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, led a congressional delegation on a four-day trip to Panama, Peru and Colombia in hopes of opening more markets to U.S. goods. But even before the group departed one farm-state lawmaker rallied the troops.
Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "We need to expand trade promotion authority, otherwise we'll cede international leadership on trade to other countries that we found out between 1993 and 2002, we're not going to stand around and wait for the United States to continue the leadership that we have for the 50 years prior to that. They went ahead on their own and we saw 130 bilateral trade agreements negotiated while we negotiated two. We don't want to be in that boat again."
Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA, requires Congress to give either an up or down vote on any trade agreements negotiated by the president without adding any amendments to the treaty. President Bush's TPA expired this summer and the Democrat controlled Congress has yet to reinstate it.
Grassley was joined by U.S. Trade Ambassador Susan Scwhab, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, and USDA Secretary Mike Johanns.
Schwab wanted to make it plain the importance of any Free Trade Agreement or FTA.
Ambassador Susan Schwab, United States Trade Representative: "Members of Congress need to understand that a "no" vote on any one of these FTAs will not create a single job in the United States or sell a single pound of meat or a single piece of medical equipment or software."
Commerce Secretary Gutierrez was there to talk about the importance of how FTAs decrease debt.
Secretary Gutierrez, Department of Commerce: "And just to give you an idea of the performance, before CAFTA was put in place we had a trade deficit with those countries, because we can now export so much more, we have a trade surplus."
And Secretary Johanns pointed out the direct benefits to agriculture. According to USDA projections, agricultural exports for 2007 will hit $79 billion and 2008 is forecast to hit $83 billion.
Secretary Mike Johanns, USDA: "To put that in context, every one billion in agricultural export sales generates an additional $2.64 billion in economic activity; and equally as important, it supports 12,800 jobs somewhere here in the United States. In all, agricultural exports support more than a million jobs, and those jobs are not only on the farm, they're in related industries like food processing and transportation. That's an important part of our nation's economy.