Ron Kirk Responds to Free Trade Skeptics

Before Obama's jobs speech, his trade adviser says that new employment lies in the world market.

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As President Obama's chief trade adviser and negotiator, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk also has the tricky task of promoting free trade at a time when soaring unemployment has Americans anxious to protect U.S. markets. The challenge doesn't rattle Kirk, who empathizes with public suspicion -- even arguing that "people have reason to be angry" over weak enforcement and jobs lost overseas -- but insists that global trade done right can add thousands of American jobs.

In addition to backing the president's recent calls for Congress to pass pending trade agreements in South America and Asia as a way to create American jobs, the former Dallas mayor has also pushed new initiatives to encourage and assist more small businesses in exporting their products.

Kirk, the first African American to serve as U.S. trade representative, talked with The Root about what policymakers have learned since the failures of the North American Fair Trade Agreement, how black small-business owners have a unique advantage in the export game and why we must all start thinking globally or be left behind.

The Root: For months, President Obama has been urging Congress to approve pending trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia -- but he hasn't actually submitted them to Congress for consideration yet. Why the delay?

Ron Kirk: The president charged my office with the responsibility to address the outstanding concerns with each of these agreements that had prevented their passage in the previous administration. [After they were addressed,] then we could move forward, hopefully get bipartisan support and also help address his number one concern, to create and sustain jobs. We worked diligently over the last 18 months to do that, and we have been ready to move forward with these agreements.

We have also been insisting that Congress include the other element of our trade package -- the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which is a safety net for workers who, through no fault of their own, may be displaced from their jobs [because of increased imports]. Congress allowed that program to expire in February, and we've been working with them on a way to get it renewed.

Democrats would prefer to move on the Trade Adjustment Assistance program first. The Republicans have insisted that we move on the [free trade agreements] first and do Trade Adjustment Assistance later. We've been trying to find a way to move everything forward at the same time. That's been the holdup.

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The good news is that we believe we have a bipartisan template that has been signed off on by the chairs of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees. If we can get Congress to move on Trade Adjustment Assistance, the president has made it plain that he's ready to send the agreements up.

TR: Of the three agreements, which is your top priority?

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM