On Nov. 4, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative posted the full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on its website. If ratified by Congress and the 11 other countries it will become the biggest free trade deal ever, encompassing an area responsible for 40 percent of the world’s economic output. There will be some losers in the process, but overall it benefits the economy by lowering trade barriers overseas and committing partner nations to a level playing field when it comes to standards for treatment of workers, the environment and intellectual property.
It’s fascinating to consider that trade may actually be one of the primary legacies of the Obama presidency, if the TPP goes through.
Think about it: besides health care and rescuing the economy from the Great Recession (which was more triage than long-term policy planning) what area has undergone more progress than trade? Remember, Obama also secured free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. He certainly wasn’t able to get troops out of Afghanistan and the Middle East like he wanted, comprehensive immigration reform went nowhere, talk of big infrastructure investment never materialized, and gun control was blocked by the NRA and its supporters in Congress despite a series of mass murders.
Besides free trade agreements, Obama’s trade credits include driving the Automated Commercial Environment and the International Trade Data System toward the finish line. Without his 2014 executive order putting agencies on notice to adapt their systems to communicate with cross-border traders through U.S. Customs’ ACE platform by the end of 2016, there still would be lots of foot-dragging. Shippers would still have to make redundant filings to different agencies and be subject to unpredictable clearance decisions. Instead, CBP and many agencies are making noticeable progress toward integrating their systems, to the great pleasure of importers and exporters.
The Obama administration has also done a Herculean job reforming the nation’s antiquated export licensing regulations, creating a much more nuanced system so exporters have an easier time selling high-tech and dual-use goods overseas. Rules for more than two dozen categories of products have been rewritten to clarify what falls under Commerce Department jurisdiction and what is under more strict State Department licensing requirements.
We’re also in the fifth year of the National Export Initiative, an ambitious effort to harness disparate government resources and double exports by 2015. The United States didn’t reach that target, but exports have grown substantially nonetheless. Since mid-2009, exports have driven nearly a third of economic growth and now account for about 14 percent of GDP.
And Obama isn’t stopping there. The administration has launched NEI/NEXT to get more companies into overseas markets by improving government data that can help companies analyze trade opportunities, better publicizing how companies can tap government trade promotion expertise, working more closely with financing organizations and service providers and partnering with states and communities, with the help of the Brookings Institute, to empower local export efforts.
The White House has also made great strides to simplify cross-border cargo processing and security with Mexico and Canada through the respective 21st Century Border and Beyond the Border initiatives.
It’s a strong record of accomplishment for a president who came to office with questions about his support for trade after talking about reforming NAFTA because it supposedly cost the country almost a million jobs and opposing the Colombia trade deal.
Playing it cheap
I just finished covering U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s big Trade Symposium. The two-day event was held this year in Baltimore.
Instead of a short drive to the Metro and taking the subway to downtown Washington, D.C., I had to drive 135 miles round-trip from Northern Virginia. I opted at the last minute not to overnight at the hotel to save money, including for expensive parking. When you work for a small outfit, every expense has to be put through the value filter.
Turns out, I’m not the only cheap one.
Personnel at CBP, which was hosting the event, also had to drive back to their homes in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, because under government rules Baltimore is considered part of their local commuting area, making it off limits for accommodations.
Many travel and conference restrictions were put in place a few years ago in the wake of the General Services Administration scandal over an excessive Las Vegas conference.
One CBP employee from Fredericksburg, Va., had to drive more than three hours each way in brutal traffic both days of the conference. Another opted to purchase a hotel room on her own dime.
My trip up, including taking light rail into the city from a suburban lot, went smoothly, but heading home the first evening was brutal. Turns out President Obama attended a fundraiser outside Washington and police blocked off the Beltway for his motorcade.
So much for my time-value calculation.
This column was published in the December 2015 issue of American Shipper.