Billings Gazette: Daines: Fast-tracking trade agreements right for Montana’s economy

Because exports to the Asian Pacific are crucial to Montana’s economy, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said Thursday he will support fast-tracking trade agreements for President Barack Obama.

The announcement made between votes on the Senate floor was the first time Daines publicly confirmed granting Obama trade promotion authority, or TPA. TPA would bind Congress to an up or down vote on two major upcoming trade agreements, meaning Congressional amendments would be off limits on agreements negotiated by the Democratic president.

The first trade agreement coming up, the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, would have the biggest effect on Montana, particularly agriculture, which exports most of its grain to Asian Pacific markets. The second agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the United States, includes markets to which Montana products are rarely exported.

“In Montana, agriculture is our No. 1 industry. It’s a $5 billion a year industry in Montana,” Daines said. “In fact, 80 percent of our wheat crop is exported, and Montana farmers and ranches know that 96 percent of the consumers in the world are located outside the United States.”

Daines last month told The Gazette he would have to consult with Montana “stakeholders” before deciding on how to vote on trade promotion authority. After holding a telephone conference last week with Montanans from trade counties, he made his decision.

“Montana farmers, Montana ranchers, Montana manufacturers want us to get this done to create jobs and opportunities for our future in Montana,” Daines said.

Daines is the only Montana delegation member who supports granting trade promotion authority to the president. Thursday, Daines joined a 65-member bipartisan majority to cut off debate about TPA. The vote pushed the Senate a step closer to actually voting on the TPA bill before Memorial Day recess.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., voted to keep the debate going. He told The Gazette his vote on TPA next week will depend on how the bill is amended. He is not voting with the president at this point.

“Congress must have a say in any trade agreement that the U.S. gets involved in, and TPA doesn’t allow that,” Tester said. “Trade agreements must be designed fairly, and they need to encourage growth in the manufacturing sector that has helped build and sustain America’s middle class.”

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., told The Gazette three weeks ago that Obama’s decision to engage Iran in nuclear disarmament talks, as well as the president’s talks with Cuba about normalizing relations, were poor decisions. Zinke said he didn’t have faith that the president would negotiate a trade deal in Montana’s best interest. His staff confirmed Thursday that Zinke’s position hasn’t changed.

White Sulphur Springs rancher Bob Hanson missed Daines’ town hall teleconference, but as president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Hanson has been lobbying Montana’s delegation to support TPA.

“Personally, I’ve talked to (Daines) several times about it and why it’s important for our people. When Max (former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus) was there, I even went back and testified in Congress for it,” Hanson said.

Japan, a major buyer of U.S. beef and Montana wheat, is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and that is reason enough to support Congress fast-tracking trade, Hanson said. Trade agreements between Australia and Japan have tipped the trade scales against U.S. beef, Hanson said. The TPP would level the trade terms between the three nations.

South American trade in the Asian Pacific is another concern, Hanson said. Agriculture production is increasing in South America. Nations there are also cutting deeper ports and canals to accommodate a new generation of larger cargo ships.

The Pacific Northwest ports, through which Montana commodities ship, cannot accommodate the new larger ships. Hanson suspects a trade agreement would buoy Montana’s export chances.

Agriculture is Montana’s strongest card at the trade table, Daines said, although he knows from personal experience the challenges of doing business in the Asian Pacific and believes the Trans-Pacific Partnership will help. Daines oversaw business in Australia and Japan for Bozeman software company RightNow Technologies. Both of those countries are members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Having a trade agreement that protects intellectual property is crucial to the tech economy.

“Intellectual property is something we are always having to fight for because it’s where we lead the world, especially when we go forward in the high-tech age,” he said. “Really, we’re shipping electrons, and that’s why it becomes so important. We must protect intellectual property.”

Manufacturers endorsing Daines’ decision to back TPA included American Chemet, an East Helena business that specializes in coatings for ships; Applied Materials, a Kalispell semiconductor company; and the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, which works with Montana manufacturers to make sure their products consistently meet national and international standards.

Daines said he has been reading the copy of Trans-Pacific Partnership made available to Congress and has been relaying any concerns specific to Montana trade back to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. USTR’s chief agricultural negotiator is Darci Vetter, who was Baucus’ international trade adviser on the Senate Finance Committee.

If trade promotion authority is granted next week, it will be months before Congress votes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Before that happens the document must be made available to public.

Daines said he will vote against the final TPP if it is bad for Montana.