The Obama administration is on the verge of sending the long-awaited U.S.-Korea trade agreement to Congress for final approval and has urged lawmakers to quickly ratify the deal, which is expected to boost U.S. agricultural exports by $1.8 billion annually.
In a media conference call last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed the importance of the trade agreement for supporting at least 70,000 new jobs and bolstering the American economy, as well as strengthening ties in the Asia-Pacific region.
"Economic output is estimated to grow more under this agreement than from our last nine trade agreements combined," he said. "The U.S.-Korea trade agreement is a win not just for America's farmers and ranchers but for millions of Americans who depend on the farm economy for jobs and wages."
He indicated the two countries are still finalizing the translation of the agreement but that negotiations concluded in December, setting the stage for congressional action.
He also warned that delaying the deal would allow foreign competitors, who are finalizing their own trade pacts with South Korea, to take advantage of the lucrative Asian market, potentially costing the United States jobs and export opportunities.
Vilsack noted the European Union recently passed its own agreement with South Korea that goes into effect July 1. He said the administration's goal is to implement the U.S.-Korea trade agreement ahead of that deadline.
South Korea is also negotiating a trade deal with Australia, a major competitor for U.S. beef. If Australia completes its agreement with South Korea before the United States, Vilsack said, the reduced tariffs for Australian beef will take effect before those of U.S. beef, giving the Australians a price advantage for at least the next 15 years.
"My hope for the farm economy, and I believe the president's hope for the overall economy as well, is that Congress moves now to ratify and implement this trade agreement as quickly as possible," he said.
However, some Republican lawmakers say pending trade pacts with Colombia and Panama should also be considered and have threatened to block ratification of the Korean trade deal unless the administration sends all three trade agreements together for congressional approval.
Like the South Korea deal, the trade agreements with Colombia and Panama were negotiated by the Bush administration but never approved by Congress.
During a hearing last week before the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a ranking member of the committee, said he supports the Korea trade agreement and wants to see it move as soon as possible, but he raised doubts that the president is serious about moving the Colombia and Panama deals.