Washington Insider -- Monday

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

US Touts Opening of Tunisia Market to US Poultry and Beef

U.S. meat exporters are expected to benefit from the opening of the Tunisian market to U.S. beef, poultry and egg products.

An agreement on export certificates was confirmed by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

“New access to the Tunisian market is an important step in ensuring that American farmers and ranchers can continue to expand their exports of U.S. agricultural products,” said Lighthizer.

In 2018, U.S. exports of agricultural products to Tunisia exceeded $264 million. Initial estimates are that Tunisia would import annually $5 million to $10 million of beef, poultry, and egg products from the United States, with additional growth over time.

DOE Denies Perry Will Exit Agency

A Bloomberg report that Energy Secretary Rick Perry is considering leaving the administration was denied by the Department of Energy (DOE).

"There is no truth that @SecretaryPerry is departing the Administration any time soon. He is happy where he is serving President Trump and leading the Department of Energy,” Shaylyn Hynes, DOE spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The Bloomberg report cited two sources as saying that Perry was still finalizing his plans and that the departure from DOE is not imminent. Plus, others noted that the former Texas governor has been considering leaving the agency for several weeks.

Perry has been preparing the agency’s deputy secretary, Dan Brouillette, for the transition, Bloomberg said.

This is not the first time that Perry's exit from DOE has cropped up as his name was mentioned as a possibility to become Homeland Security secretary and he has also been mentioned at times as a possible candidate to head up the Department of Defense.

Washington Insider: USMCA Would Modestly Boosts US Economy

The media is reporting that U.S. International Trade Commission recently estimated that the new NAFTA free trade pact would “modestly boost the U.S. economy, especially auto parts production – but may curb vehicle assembly and limit consumer choice in cars.”

The analysis is a crucial step in the push for Congress to consider ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the New York Times noted. The agreement was signed by President Donald Trump and the leaders of the other two countries last year to replace the 25-year-old NAFTA but still must be approved by the U.S. Congress.

The report estimates that annual U.S. real gross domestic product would increase by 0.35%, or $68.5 billion, on an annual basis compared to a NAFTA baseline, and would add 176,000 U.S. jobs, while raising U.S. exports.

The ITC's estimates are for year six of the trade deal, once it is fully implemented, the Times noted.

The trade deal's success or failure in Congress could be determined by how it is expected to affect the U.S. auto industry, a sector that “drained jobs to Mexico under NAFTA”. The new deal would tighten regional content rules, requiring that 75% of a vehicle's value be sourced in North American versus 62.5% currently, and 40-45% produced in high-wage areas, namely the United States and Canada.

Auto industry employment would rise by 30,000 jobs for parts and engine production but U.S. vehicle assembly would decline. U.S. vehicle prices would rise up to 1.6%, causing consumption to fall by 140,000 units per year, or about 1.25% of 2017 sales, the report says.

However, the report overall was more positive than initially anticipated by economists who said the traditional economic models used by the ITC to measure previous trade deals would result in minimal gains for the United States.

White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett told Reuters that he was pleasantly surprised by the results, which used different modeling methods that he called "accurate and well done."

"Their estimate is a lot closer to what we think USMCA will do than I expected," Hassett said. "This is very strong argument for passing the USMCA."

Still, some key Democrats were not swayed from their demands for improvements to the enforcement of new labor standards before they consider USMCA.

Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., chairman of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said that he had already believed the trade deal needed changes before it could be considered by the House. "Nothing in this report alleviates those concerns," he said.

The ITC report said Mexican union wages would rise by 17.2% if the labor provisions agreed in the USMCA are enforced. Even so, Mexican factory wages would remain well below those in the United States.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, praised the report for highlighting benefits beyond tariff reductions.

"Many of the significant improvements in USMCA are reducing non-tariff barriers and implementing rules and fair practices that will help U.S. workers, jobs and businesses tremendously over the coming years," Grassley said.

The U.S. Trade Representative's (USTR) office had prepared a separate analysis of the USMCA's automotive benefits that industry officials had described as a rosier alternative view of USMCA aimed at limiting any potential damage from the ITC report.

USTR estimated that the trade deal would create 76,000 automotive sector jobs within five years as automakers invest some $34 billion in new plants to comply with the regional content rules. The total includes about $15 billion in projects already announced.

USTR officials said their analysis was based on plans disclosed by automakers to the trade agency for compliance with the new agreement's tighter rules of origin.

"They have verbally committed to us that they intend to comply with the rules," a senior USTR official said. "And they have told us that this is not going to have significant upward pressure on vehicle prices."

But the ITC report said some automakers may decide not to offer vehicles that would be too expensive to bring into compliance with the deal, reducing consumer choice in the U.S. auto market.

The trade group representing Detroit automakers Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler said it viewed the USTR analysis as more accurate than the ITC's.

The ITC "underestimates the longer-term investments and increased U.S. auto parts sourcing that will be made in our sector as a result of the certainty and predictability the USMCA will deliver," Matt Blunt, president of the American Automotive Policy Council, said in a statement.

The USMCA deal will also lead to new access for U.S. exports of dairy, poultry and egg products to Canada and U.S. imports of sugar and sugar-containing products from Canada, the ITC said. The ITC's forecast estimated total U.S. dairy product output would increase by $226.8 million, or 0.1%. U.S. agriculture and food exports overall would increase by $435 million.

The proposed deal appears likely to mean significant benefits to U.S. agriculture. However, Congressional approval is still expected to be difficult, at least in part because of opposition to U.S. metal tariffs which are strongly opposed by North American trading partners, as well as others and which will likely continue to be controversial, Washington Insider believes.

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