What’s next on the trade front?

Sen. Rob Portman U.S. Senator (R-OH)
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At long last, President Obama recently signed the three job-creating trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that had been languishing for years. These agreements were negotiated several years ago, but blocked from a vote by then-Speaker Pelosi in 2008 and by President Obama for the past few years. When they finally came to the House and Senate floors, all three passed in record time with large bipartisan majorities.

As a former U.S. trade representative who helped negotiate all three of these agreements, I was pleased to see the strong support for agreements that have such clear economic and foreign policy benefits for the United States. According to the president’s own metrics, they will create 250,000 American jobs and increase U.S. exports by over $13 billion. Each agreement also deepens our relationship with a key U.S. ally. At a time of 9% unemployment and so many national security challenges, this is the kind of legislation Washington should be enacting.

Now it’s time to build on the momentum created by these successful votes and get America back engaged in opening markets for our goods and services. Since these three agreements were negotiated several years ago, America has stood on the sidelines, concluding no new agreements while allowing our competitors to leap forward in the global marketplace. Since President Obama took office, over 30 trade agreements have entered into force, yet only one, which passed the Congress in 2007 under the previous administration, included the U.S. Today, there are over 100 active bilateral trade agreements being negotiated to knock down barriers and open markets, and the U.S. is not a party to any of them. Our workers and farmers are disadvantaged as global competitors jump ahead of us, adding market share we should have.

My hope is that the signing of these three export-opening agreements not only allows us to sell more U.S. goods and services to the 100 million customers in South Korea, Colombia and Panama, but that their passage gets the United States back in the game of fighting to knock down barriers to create good-paying export jobs in America.

The first step is to restore to the presidency the critical trade negotiating power every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has sought or received. Many Republicans in Congress want to limit President Obama’s executive authority, but this is one area where I believe we should be granting the president additional authority. The South Korean, Colombian and Panamanian agreements were able to be negotiated and passed because previous presidents have had what is called Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA. TPA is essential to any bilateral or multilateral negotiation because it allows a president to take negotiated agreements to Congress through an expedited process and an up-or-down vote. Negotiations don’t work without TPA because other countries will not give us their best, final deal if they believe Congress will be able to amend a carefully balanced agreement.

During the debate leading up to the trade votes last week, some Senate Democrats offered to work with me and other Republicans on a 21st-century TPA proposal. I hope the administration and my congressional colleagues follow through on that offer because it is necessary for America to remain competitive in the global marketplace and avoid falling further behind. Like many issues in Washington, the challenge is not figuring out the right policy, the trick is finding the political courage to do the right thing: in this case giving the president the trade negotiating authority to make us more competitive globally.

In addition to restoring TPA, the U.S. should pursue innovative 21st-century approaches to opening more global markets for American products. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit hosted by the United States in November presents a prime opportunity for America to lead and promote policies to open markets in the most dynamic and fast-growing economies in the world. At APEC, the U.S. should encourage the 21 Asian-Pacific leaders participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations to complete the agreement by the end of 2012. These TPP negotiations have been going on for two years — and an ambitious agreement will help drive American exports to the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. Even while the regional TPP agreement progresses, the U.S. must get back in the business of negotiating new bilateral agreements. These agreements have proven to be the most effective way to rapidly reduce export barriers for U.S. products and services and level the playing field for American investment. We also should consider other innovative approaches such as so-called sectoral agreements in areas such as the services sector where the United States has a competitive advantage and an overall trade surplus.

While we get back in the business of opening markets for our workers, we also need to improve the enforcement of both U.S. and international trade rules. American workers and innovators are the best in the world. However, if our competitors are not following the rules, American workers are put at a disadvantage. We should not stand for unfair and illegal practices such as dumping of foreign products, unfair tariffs, subsidized exports and intellectual property theft.

Now is the time for action. With 14 million Americans out of work, we cannot afford to continue to take a back seat in the global economy. We must grab the steering wheel and lead on opening markets to expand our exports, add jobs and help get the economy back on track.

Rob Portman is a U.S. senator from Ohio. He served as U.S. trade representative from May 2005 to May 2006.