Asia pact, Ex-Im bank bring U.S. trade rep to Everett

EVERETT — The White House’s top trade official and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen visited Everett and Seattle this week to stump for a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 Asian and Pacific Rim countries, as well as federal financing for U.S. exports by companies like Boeing.

Achieving those two goals would open new opportunities for Washington businesses, which recorded nearly $82 billion in exports last year, they said.

But both goals have critics, and neither is a done deal.

Negotiations for the free-trade agreement, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), have blown past an initial 2012 deadline. A draft copy leaked late last year and published by Wikileaks seemed to show the U.S. and other countries were far apart on some issues.

Ambassador Michael Froman, the U.S. trade representative, said he’s focused on moving it forward.

On Tuesday, Froman and Larsen toured Boeing’s Everett plant, and Froman addressed the Washington Council on International Trade in Seattle.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, Froman said, would give U.S. companies greater access to markets in Asia, which has a rapidly expanding middle class. “The question is, ‘Who’s going to serve them? Who’s going to provide them with the food and agricultural products, with the services, with the manufactured products?’”

The agreement is primarily about easing trade barriers, but, Froman said, it would also raise standards in those countries for labor rules, environmental quality and intellectual property.

It will be “the most progressive trade agreement in history,” Froman said.

However, many special interest groups and some members of Congress have criticized the TPP’s secretive negotiation process. Labor unions, including the Machinists union, have characterized it as driven by the interests of corporate boardrooms rather than shopfloor workers. And digital-rights advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation say the U.S. has pushed the most controversial — and most restrictive — aspects of digital copyright laws while omitting the most flexible parts.

The U.S. has gone into negotiations with the highest standards, said Larsen, the 2nd District Democrat.

The result will be a compromise among the negotiating countries, he said. “We’re big kids, we get that.”

He expressed less patience for members of Congress opposed to extending the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s authorization, which expires Sept. 30.

The bank provides financing for buyers of U.S. exports. Its largest beneficiary is Boeing, a fact that leads critics to derisively call the 80-year-old institution Bank of Boeing.

Congress typically extends the Ex-Im Bank’s authorization quietly, with bipartisan support. But a group of House Republicans split with their leadership and have opposed the bank, which they say is tantamount to corporate welfare.

With the issue cast in ideological terms, Ex-Im supporters face an uphill fight as the clock ticks down on the bank.

If it isn’t reauthorized, the bank won’t close its doors the next day. It still has outstanding loans that have to be managed. And Congress can always resurrect it down the road.

But business will suffer in the meantime, Larsen said. “At Boeing, 18 percent of deliveries are 100 percent dependent on Ex-Im financing.”

Right now, reauthorization isn’t even on Congress’ agenda after it returns from recess.

Private financing would likely be available for jetliner sales without Ex-Im financing, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.

Jetliners are seen as low-risk purchases with good returns from loans, but what happens five or 10 years from now? Financiers might have better places to put their money, he said.

Regardless of how airplane sales are financed, U.S. officials will back up American companies, Froman said.

Several European and Chinese politicians have helped their domestic airplane makers close business deals in recent years.

So too has Obama, Froman said. “We’re willing to go to bat for American companies when sales are on the line.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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