Cutting the overseas travel budget of a few dozen trade negotiators hardly seems a comparable threat to America’s national security. Yet it could have as large a ripple effect on the nation’s global competitiveness as the budget cuts squeezing the Pentagon under the austerity program known as sequestration.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative has been waging a lonely battle for its budget, which shrank 7 percent to $47 million this year because of sequestration spending caps. Officials in the office, pointing to the 2014 budget proposal in the Republican-controlled House, fear that they could end up with even less money next year.
This matters, officials say, because trade negotiators fly hundreds of thousands of miles just doing their jobs. Since the trade representative’s office spends the bulk of its budget — $46 million — on fixed costs like salaries, benefits and office supplies, a cut of $5 million or $8 million could effectively ground much of its 250-person work force.
“We are in a situation where we’ve having to choose: Can we send people to a negotiation? Can we bring this enforcement case or another?” the newly appointed trade representative, Michael Froman, said in a recent panel discussion with the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas J. Donohue.
When Mr. Froman described his operation as nimble, lean and agile, Mr. Donohue helpfully added “poor.”
The office’s financial woes have become a minor scandal in trade circles. Susan C. Schwab, a former trade representative in the George W. Bush administration, noted that even in the best of times, life at the office is not glamorous. Negotiators typically squeeze into economy-class seats for 15-hour flights to Asia, after which they plunge into round-the-clock talks on complex issues.
“All of this is under severe threat by virtue of $5 million, $8 million, $10 million,” Ms. Schwab said. “That’s a real travesty.”
At the beginning of the Obama administration, clipping the wings of the trade representative would not have mattered that much. President Obama’s trade policy initially consisted of rewriting parts of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that the Bush administration had negotiated, and then shepherding the agreements through Congress.
In the last two years, though, the administration has embarked on a genuinely ambitious agenda. The United States is deep in negotiations with 12 Pacific Rim countries on a free-trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And it has begun what are likely to be multiyear talks on a free-trade pact with the European Union.
Source: The New York Times
Published: May 8, 2013