Administration, Senators Question Direction of Doha Talks

November 24, 2009

WASHINGTON (November 24, 2009)—Two top-level trade officials in the Obama administration recently told Congress what they thought of the trade deal currently on the table at the World Trade Organization (WTO), and Senators liked what they heard.

“No deal is better than a bad deal” was the common refrain during the Senate Finance Committee’s nomination hearing held earlier this month for America’s WTO Ambassador nominee Michael Punke and Islam Siddiqui, who is vying for job of the U.S. Trade Representative’s chief agricultural negotiator.

At the hearing, both Punke and Siddiqui expressed concern over what is currently on the table in Doha Round negotiations, agreeing with key Senators that right now the deal needs improving.

Voicing his support for the nominees, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) posted a statement following the hearing that read, “The Doha Round has the potential to revitalize the global economy, but no deal is better than a bad deal for American ranchers, farmers, and workers.”

Acknowledging the challenges that lay ahead for Punke and Siddiqui, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-IA) also gave his blessing to the nominees with an admonition.

“There’s a bipartisan consensus that we need to see meaningful market access opportunities from our major trading partners if the Doha negotiations are going to be concluded successfully,” Grassley stated at the hearing, before going on to praise the nominees’ qualifications for the job.

Some other key Senators on the panel were even more to the point.

Newly installed Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche L. Lincoln (D-AR), who also serves as a senior member of the powerful Finance Committee, raised concerns about the deal as it now stands.

“The problem is especially clear for agriculture, where steep and unsustainable cuts in U.S. domestic agriculture farm supports have been demanded,” she explained. “Meanwhile, our trading partners balk at changes in the existing text and refuse to grant U.S. requests for bilateral commitment.”

North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, echoed Lincoln’s concerns and said an unbalanced deal for America’s farmers would not gain any traction in the U.S. Congress.

Conrad warned: “If it’s not a good deal, it’s going to be dead on arrival here. The previous agreements that were tentatively put on the table, I think would have been a serious blow to American agriculture, certainly the state that I represent, and I would’ve done everything in my power to stop it. So I hope very much, that you take to heart how critically important it is that we negotiate aggressively. The days are gone when the United States could just give things away because we were so strong and so prosperous.”

Another longtime agricultural champion, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), was quick to associate himself with Conrad’s assessment, emphasizing that negotiators should protect the recently passed farm bill.

“Senator Conrad, I share your view with regards to the Doha Round and these ever ongoing trade agreements,” he said. “I’m worried that we can’t get there from here. And we certainly shouldn’t be in a position of saying well, we’re going to take any protection we have in the current farm bill and use that as a leverage, if you will, to try to make some concessions prior to any agreement.”

The outcome of the Doha Round remains to be seen, but the message at the hearing—from both sides—was loud and clear: what is on the table is unbalanced and unacceptable to the United States, and it needs serious work.