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Choking on sugarcoating

Last night, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released its hefty, annual Trade Policy Agenda and Annual Report. This statutorily mandated annual tome offers a good opportunity for Congress and the public to understand what USTR thinks it's doing, or what the agency wants us to think it's doing.

Unfortunately, the Trade Policy Agenda is (once again) an exercise in sugar-coating so extreme that it's surprising it got past Michelle Obama's nutrition advisers.

We've detailed how, after some initial honesty in the 2009 Trade Policy Agenda, USTR by President Obama's second year was back to the same old Bush administration rhetoric on trade policy. The 2012 agenda is in that latter vein as well. Here are just some of the flaws in the latest report:

Trade without a net (calculation). As we've detailed on this blog many times over (see here and here), one of the administration's biggest sins in its recent push for the Korea and Colombia trade deals was its claim that these deals would boost bilateral exports by $12 billion, without noting that the government's own numbers project that the deals will increase job-displacing imports more than job-creating exports. In other words, these deals are projected to be a net negative for job creating exports. We were kinda hoping that the administration might stop misrepresenting its own research once they got Congress to pass these deals. But this seems to be a case of repeating the same incorrect line so many times that you start to believe it's true.

American-made smoke and mirrors. The very first page of the Trade Agenda mentions the "Made in America" theme twice. But USTR is actually pushing the exact opposite of Made in America. Not only have our trade deals meant that imports of products Made-Overseas swamp exports of products Made-in-America, but these pacts also require that the U.S. roll back Buy American requirements for our trading partners. In fact, today, the morning after the Trade Agenda touting Made in America was published, USTR issued a determination stating that Korean-made products will be treated as if they were American for U.S. government procurement purposes.

Korea deal hurts U.S. auto sector. Everyone loves to love on the auto sector these days, and the Trade Agenda paints the Korea deal as a boon to Detroit. But once again, the government's actual numbers show that Korean auto imports will outstrip U.S. auto exports under the deal. Moreover, the harebrained (and high profile in Korea) exemption of U.S. autos from having to meet Korean auto safety and environmental standards will read like a "Do Not Buy American cars for your teen" label to every concerned Korean mother and father.

No mention of significant WTO attacks. The Trade Agenda also celebrates U.S. participation in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2011, but fails to mention the most important news: the U.S. lost not one, not two, but three high-profile WTO attacks on U.S. consumer protection policies. As the majority of WTO members cheered from the sidelines, three panels of nine unelected foreign "judges" ruled that U.S. efforts to reduce teen smoking and inform consumers about the origin of meats and the impact of tuna fishing on dolphins violate WTO rules. These three rulings were the first ever under controversial terms of the WTO's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, and could open the U.S. up to trade sanctions. (Now, if you bother to look through the full 393 pages of the extended Annual Report, these disputes are mentioned, albeit with insufficient detail or balance to develop an informed view.)

Working hard to export less. Significant USTR resources are being expended on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Trade Agenda touts U.S. exports to the eight TPP nations (supposedly to point out how awesome the deal will be for U.S. exports), but fails to mention that USTR already put FTAs in place with the four most significant nations on the list (Peru, Chile, Singapore and Australia). Oops.

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Don Juan of Austria

It would be nice to see USTR have to actually defend these policies out in the hinterland. The problem is that no one knows that USTR is proud to make "Buy America" mean "Buy Korea" or that it is spending energy negotiating a free trade agreement with Vietnam and Malaysia. And then for all the tough talk from other agencies when it comes to bombing other countries, we roll over like mice for the coalition of WTO judges who always rule against us.

Thanks for your attention to these outrages.

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