Future of trade discussed at gathering in Seattle

SEATTLE — Anxious questions about the future of the United States’ trade policy dominated a gathering of trade-dependent businesses Monday in Seattle.

Trade policy used to be the domain of businessmen and businesswomen, attorneys, regulators and policy wonks toiling in relative anonymity. Now, widespread economic anxieties have put it in the crosshairs of national politics.

Thousands of jobs and business worth billions of dollars across Washington are tied to trade. Many local employers — Amazon, Boeing and Brooks Sports, to name a few — have prospered off globalization and freer trade. With so much to gain, it is easy to find supporters for international commerce here.

However, elsewhere in the state and across America, people see trade as undercutting local economies and throwing communities and families into financial chaos.

That angst contributed to President Donald Trump’s election in November. Opening U.S. ports and borders to foreign goods has contributed to an exodus of manufacturing and other jobs, he claimed on the campaign trail.

Trump’s harnessing of widespread economic anxiety and trade skepticism has put him at odds with many in the Republican Party, a longtime champion of trade.

Like many fellow moderate Republicans, Rep. Dave Reichert, who represents much of King County, has walked a careful path — advocating for trade without running afoul of the White House.

At the Washington Council on International Trade’s conference Monday, Reichert told the audience that Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a tentative trade deal with 11 other nations, was “disappointing, but it’s not the end.”

Reichert, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Trade, said he expects the president to soon take up a “renegotiation (or) a re-examination” of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The deal went into effect in 1994 and substantially removed barriers to economic activity between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Trade skeptics have long blamed it for undermining large swaths of the American economy. Scrapping or overhauling the deal was a marquis promise from candidate Trump.

The president has set a clear tenor when it comes to trade. However, how his tone translates into policy is less clear.

“This is a highly unpredictable … situation,” the Congressman said, pausing while he scanned the crowd.

Reichert said he agrees with Trump on three points: Trade deals should be fair, should create jobs in the U.S. and should spur American exports.

“I think we have a great possibility here to move things forward. It’s not going to be easy,” Reichert told The Daily Herald after speaking at Monday’s conference.

The new administration is still working on how it wants to change or replace NAFTA, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said during an interview on Sunday Morning Futures on Fox News Channel.

Changes to American trade policy could have huge implications for Washington’s economy, which heavily relies on foreign trade.

“Any time you start talking about raising tariffs, other countries are going to retaliate,” said Carl Wollebeck, who manages the Port of Everett’s marine operations. “So, yeah, I get nervous.”

Many of the ships that call at the Port of Everett are bringing goods to or from South Korea, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and other nations, he said.

Limits on trade quickly can affect what moves through the port’s terminals. For several years, a steady amount of steel from New Zealand had moved into the U.S. through the Port of Everett. Recently, the U.S. invoked anti-dumping protections on the commodity.

Imports of New Zealand steel “stopped. We don’t get that anymore,” Wollebeck said.

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