Trade's cleanup hitter gets benched

Another critical trade deadline passed quietly this weekend while farmers were busy in the fields. By April 30, World Trade Organization (WTO) leaders were supposed to have put numbers on formulas to open global markets and reduce domestic farm subsidies. This was one of those important early steps that would open the way for substantive trade decisions later in the year.

Rob Portman is moving on to Office of Management and Budget at a critical time in world trade talks.

The fact that it didn't happen is just another sign the Doha Development round of WTO talks, so important to U.S. agriculture, may never go anywhere this year. Or ever, for that matter.

Perhaps another sign is the mysterious decision by President Bush to move U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman over to head the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Pulling our clean up hitter in the bottom of the ninth inning is a sign the manager thinks the game is over.

I got a chance to see Portman work up close when I attended the WTO trade meetings in Hong Kong last December. Not only was he cool under pressure, he gave the United States a definite advantage going up against the European Union and the high-pressure G20, a group of less developed countries led by Brazil and India pushing for ambitious ag reforms among developed countries.

When EU trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, himself a steely-eyed negotiator, roundly criticized the United States food aid programs in Hong Kong, Portman deflected the heat and turned the tables on the Europeans. He deftly steered the discussion back to the issue at hand: the Europeans' lack of backbone in opening up their own markets.

Susan Schwab, Portman's deputy trade rep, is stepping in as Portman's replacement. I think she'll surprise some people in Geneva. She's got one heckuva resume, as Carla Hills, U.S. Trade Rep from 1989 - 1993 notes.

"She will come to the job highly prepared on the substance of trade policy," noted Hills in a recent letter to the New York Times. "It is impossible to overstate how much this will matter at the bargaining table. For nearly 30 years, she has demonstrated that she is a thoughtful policy expert and a tough and effective negotiator who has accomplishments to show for it."

Portman agrees. "It really is going to be a seamless transition," he told reporters in an online briefing last week. "We will not miss a beat at USTR. Susan Schwab• was in place and she's fully conversant on all the issues, including Doha.•bCrLf

Some of the criticism of Schwab is that she lacks experience on Capitol Hill. Portman begs to differ. "She has more Hill background I think than any USTR has had until I came along, and it will serve her well," he says. "She's well respected on the Hill. She understands the need fora bipartisan trade agenda. I'm really excited about the President's decision to promote Susan. She's absolutely qualified."

Bee hive
Schwab is stepping into a bee hive right now. The USTR office is in the middle ofa dozen bilateral negotiations, as well as two very intense WTO accession negotiations, not to mention the all-important Doha negotiation. They're also dealing with China enforcement actionsand a number of other specific issues.

"We've got plenty on our plate, and it was really important to me to have somebody who could come in immediately and handle all those issues," says Portman. "Susan and I are both committed to the round. There's no backing off.•bCrLf

The Doha round of trade talks was supposed to lower global farm subsidies and open up new markets so farmers could get more income from the marketplace. The goal was to help lift millions of impoverished people out of hunger and misery. The World Bank forecasts that 63 percent of the income gains for the world's poor will come from agriculture trade reforms, and 93 percent of that will depend on improved market access. The same is true in manufacturing.

One Senior U.S. Trade official says the only real deadline is the end of the year, "when we've got to get something done so we can package it up to send it up to Congress for the TPA (Trade Promotion Authority) deadlines."

Portman, Schwab and USDA Secretary Mike Johanns will still meet with ministers of the G-20, G90 and the Cairns Group this week in Geneva. Meanwhile, some political leaders want to extend TPA, possibly coupling it with a one-year farm bill extension.

Portman insists the United States continues to be committed to an ambitious result. "We believe this should occur across the board from domestic support to reductions in tariffs and all goods, from computers to corn,•bCrLf he says. "That's been our position since the start and six months ago wereaffirmed that commitment with a very specific proposal calling for a substantial reduction in our trade distorting domestic support.

"We didn't just meet the Doha requirement, by the way, we exceeded it,•bCrLf Portman notes. "AndI know that put a lot of pressure on some of our trading partners to do their part which is to provide the market access that will provide most of the development gains.•bCrLf

If Doha is to survive, we've got to have some really serious progress in the next couple months, including some basic agreement by the summer. We'll need to start converting agreements on formulas into schedules, and converting schedules into concrete agreements.

Let's hope our new cleanup hitter is up to the task.

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