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Sequester puts US at a disadvantage on trade, ambassador says

Ambassador Michael Froman, the United States trade representative, says the sequester has kept the USTR from filling positions and sending officials to negotiations or trade enforcement actions.

By David T. CookStaff writer / September 26, 2013

United States Trade Representative Michael Froman speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor

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The federal budget sequester is hurting the US government’s ability to represent the nation effectively in trade issues, says Ambassador Michael Froman, the United States trade representative. 

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The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) staff negotiates trade deals around the world. It also is charged with ensuring that other countries live up to those agreements.

“Because of the sequester and other cuts, we are not able to fill positions. People are having to do the work of not only their own jobs but of others,” Ambassador Froman said Thursday at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters. He added that USTR officials are not “able to travel to negotiations or to enforcement actions the way that would like to fulfill their responsibilities.”

The dollar amounts are small, what Froman called “decimal dust in the budget world.” The sequester trimmed USTR’s budget from $51 million to $47.5 million, a cut of 6.8 percent. The $47.5 million figure compares with an original request in the president’s budget of $56 million. So current spending is 15.2 percent below what the Obama administration requested. “The constraints are real,” Froman said.

The ambassador stressed that the USTR staff was “incredibly dedicated and are doing herculean things to achieve their mission within these constraints.” He cited several examples of decisions forced by the budget that were “not in the interests of the United States.” Froman noted that his office would not be able to follow up on all of the intellectual property problems highlighted in a recent USTR report covering 41 countries. “We will not be able to send people to follow up on those concerns, to the vast majority of those countries,” he said.

He also noted that the tighter budget limits travel, a key component of managing the nation’s trade relations. “A lot of making progress on negotiating trade agreements but also monitoring them and enforcing them is having that face-to-face contact, working the systems, being in those countries, building support in those countries for the principles that we believe in.”

Resource issues were a “big part” of recent morale problems at USTR, Froman said. In an Office of Personnel Management survey of 29 small government agencies in 2012, USTR came in last in employee satisfaction with a grade of 32.7 out of 100. Correcting that problem has been “very high on our agenda and it started from day one.” The Senate confirmed Froman for his post June 19.

The Obama administration has what Froman recently told The Wall Street Journal is “the most ambitious trade agenda in history.” The USTR is working to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement among 12 nations including Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Together, the TPP nations account for 40 percent of global GDP. The ambassador told reporters discussions had “entered the end game” and that negotiators were “working around the clock” to complete the deal by the end of 2013. 

USTR is also “off and running” on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union, Froman said. If the TPP and TTIP deals are successfully concluded and win Senate approval, the US will have free trade with 65 percent of the global economy, Froman says.

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