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U.S. Trade Chief to Push for Tariff Cuts

President Bush's point man on trade, Rob Portman, has an ambitious 2006 agenda, including reducing global tariffs, negotiating for new free-trade agreements and implementing the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

WASHINGTON — President Bush’s point man on trade, Rob Portman, has an ambitious 2006 agenda, including reducing global tariffs, negotiating for new free-trade agreements and implementing the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The most important item on the overall trade front may be the World Trade Organization’s Doha talks, which have stretched across four years, and are intended to reduce most tariffs, including those on apparel, textiles and cotton. The negotiations are coming up against their first real deadline in the expiration of Bush’s Trade Promotion Authority in July 2007. The authority, which might not be renewed, gives trade deals a chance to go through Congress without any amendments.

“Time’s running short,” Portman, the U.S. Trade Representative, said during a meeting with reporters Friday. “We cannot let this opportunity pass. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reduce tariffs, trade-distorting subsidies, increase economic growth and help the developing world.”

Portman is scheduled to be in Davos, Switzerland, this week at a trade ministers meeting on the Doha talks.

“A watered-down Doha round is not satisfactory,” he said. “It’s not acceptable. ‘Doha Lite’ doesn’t work.”

Perhaps the most immediate concern for apparel and textile producers and importers is the implementation of CAFTA, which is intended to ease the flow of goods between the U.S., Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Portman said it was possible that one country would be ready to have the agreement take effect with the U.S. on Feb. 1, though it was more likely to happen with one or more countries on March 1.

The sticking points are generally in the agricultural area and not the textile and apparel side deals to the agreement, which Portman must submit to Congress for approval after countries implement the pact. Those deals, such as one stipulating that pocketing and lining must be produced in one of the countries in the agreement, won’t necessarily have to be held up until all the countries are ready to implement CAFTA.

“I don’t think we need to wait,” Portman said.

In addition, a free-trade agreement with Bahrain is being implemented, another deal was signed with Oman last week and the administration told Congress it planned to sign a pact with Peru. Portman also wants to begin negotiations with other countries, perhaps South Korea.

“With regard to [South] Korea, we have made great progress in the last four or five months on a number of different trade issues to be able to better lay out the groundwork for a free-trade agreement and it’s our seventh biggest trading partner,” he said.

Should a deal with South Korea come to fruition, it would be the largest such pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement. Negotiations for free-trade agreements with Malaysia, Switzerland and Egypt are also possible.

“Typically, the Congress has dealt with one [free-trade agreement] a year, if that, and I’m talking about asking Congress to deal with a few this year and maybe more, and that’s going to be tough to our legislative process, but we are going to move more aggressively,” Portman said.