WASHINGTON – This week, Congress is set to consider trade agreements between the United States and South Korea, Panama and Colombia, as well as the renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance reforms.

After working to make these trade agreements better for American businesses and workers, President Obama is calling for the passage of all four initiatives to grow American exports abroad and support American jobs at home.

Trade can be a tough subject in Maine. I’ve visited with blueberry farmers excited about export opportunities, and with paper mill workers concerned about global competition. The conversations have always been spirited. And what I’ve taken away from those talks is a conviction that the president has been right to tackle trade in new ways.

To do right by Maine on trade, we had to look for better export opportunities on a more level playing field with our trading partners, and never forget the workers who are the true engine of America’s economy.

Without a doubt, exports can boost Maine’s economy. In 2010, Maine exported $3.2 billion worth of goods to the world, accounting for 6.1 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, exports of goods alone supported approximately 21,000 Maine jobs.

It’s worth noting that nearly 38 percent of Maine’s exports last year were to countries with which the United States has a free trade agreement. Maine exports to one partner, Australia, have increased by 86 percent since an agreement was enacted in 2005.

Maine already exports to the countries with which we now have pending trade deals. Passage of these agreements will make it cheaper, easier, and faster for Maine exporters to do that business, and expand it.

Korean customers purchased an annual average of $96 million worth of goods from Maine businesses, primarily paper products and computer and electronic products, between 2008 and 2010. That made Korea the fifth largest importer of Maine goods.

The U.S.-South Korea trade agreement has the potential to grow that market for Maine. It further opens Korea’s huge services market and eliminates high average tariffs of 54 percent on agricultural goods and 6.2 percent on non-agricultural goods.

The president negotiated a better deal for America’s auto sector. All told, it’s estimated the Korea agreement will increase American goods exports alone by at least $10 billion to $11 billion and support at least 70,000 American jobs.

Maine exported an annual average of $4.6 million in goods such as paper products and machinery to Colombia between 2008 and 2010. Estimates indicate that elimination of tariffs on U.S. goods under this agreement can increase total U.S. goods exports to Colombia by more than $1.1 billion.

And we’ve won new commitments on labor rights and worker protections in Colombia that are leveling the playing field for American workers, too.

Between 2008 and 2010, Maine exported an annual average of $2.1 million in goods — primarily transportation equipment and chemicals — to Panama. The U.S.-Panama trade agreement will expand that market for Maine products as the majority of U.S. products gain immediate duty-free access. And we’ve resolved labor and tax issues that caused concern about this agreement.

Importantly for small and medium-sized Maine exporters, each agreement includes strong transparency obligations, provisions that remove technical barriers, and customs and trade facilitation.

Strong enforcement mechanisms will hold our trading partners accountable on key issues like labor and the environment.

State-of-the-art provisions will protect American intellectual property rights, reduce regulatory red tape and promote science-based standards for agriculture.

Even as we open new markets, the Obama administration hasn’t forgotten American workers who may be negatively affected by trade.

The president has fought hard to ensure that Congress takes care of those American workers as the trade agreements are considered.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation moving through Congress reflects the many improvements the administration made in 2009: It helps displaced workers in services as well as in manufacturing with job training, lower health insurance premiums and assistance that keeps families on their feet.

About 2,500 Maine workers utilized assistance between Oct. 1, 2009, and Sept. 30, 2010.

The president is committed to making trade work for Maine. With the improvements we’ve made, the three pending trade agreements and Trade Adjustment Assistance represent a better approach to trade for the state.

– Special to The Press Herald