The confirmation hearings for President Biden’s top trade diplomat probably won’t begin until next month, but Katherine Tai already is giving us a glimpse of what she’ll do after her all-but-certain approval as the next U.S. Trade Representative.
Let’s hope her vision includes farmers.
It simply must and it surely does. Tai is a trade-policy professional. She knows how much American farmers like me depend on trade that goes both ways. About a third of all the corn and soybeans grown in the United States ship to foreign customers in China, Japan, and Mexico.
These sales not only keep people like me in business, but they are a vital source of prosperity for the American economy.
Yet sometimes we’re forgotten. We live in “fly-over” states, far away from the centers of power on the coasts. Many public officials and media figures never visit farms. Some probably don’t even know a single farmer. All the while, they make decisions and shape opinions that affect our country’s food production and my family’s bottom line.
Farmers can’t afford to go unseen. Our voices must be a part of any conversation that involves the exchange of goods and services across borders.
Tai is an encouraging choice for President Biden in part because she’s not a political choice. Nominating her for U.S. Trade Representative has nothing to do with the political paybacks that often accompany cabinet selections. Upon her selection, the Associated Press described her as “a problem-solving pragmatist on trade policy.”
A native of Connecticut who graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School, Tai is an expert on trade law who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. She worked for seven years in the trade representative’s office, where she focused on China and the World Trade Organization. Later, she moved to the House Ways and Means Committee, serving as its chief trade counsel. In this position, she earned praise for persuading representatives to support USMCA, the trade agreement approved by a bipartisan majority in Congress to replace NAFTA.
So she appears to be a thoughtful and mainstream choice. She certainly sounded like one in a speech last week, when Tai announced Biden’s intention “to implement a worker-centered trade policy.”
“I would not fault anyone who may be feeling exhausted, anxious, or even despair at this moment,” said Tai in her remarks to the National Foreign Trade Council. “As a nation, we have experienced over the past several years substantial drama and discord.”
Farmers know this as well as anybody. On top of everything else, we’ve had to struggle. Trade wars have limited our opportunities and low commodity prices have made it difficult for our businesses to be economically sustainable.
In her address, Tai mentioned “workers” five times. She didn’t bring up “farmers” even once.
Her speech also referenced “labor” and “entrepreneurs” as well as “civil-society communities” and “defenders of our natural resources.” She failed to cite “agriculture.”
In these early days, of course, I’m willing to give Tai the benefit of the doubt. She probably meant “workers” to include farmers. That makes sense: We’re the people who work the land, as we grow the food our country and the world needs.
We are helping in the fight against climate change—another goal Tai listed in her remarks. Although farmers are sometimes portrayed as foes, we’re better seen as partners who have a vested interest in soil conservation and carbon sequestration.
The one thing we can’t accept is neglect.
When Tai formally assumes the role of U.S. Trade Representative, we’ll count on her to enforce China’s commitments to buy American farm products, cajole Canada into meeting its dairy-quota obligations, and negotiate new trade agreements that expand markets for agriculture producers.
As she takes on these difficult challenges, farmers are ready to stand by her side.
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