BANGOR, Maine — Every day, thousands of flights at airports across the country take off and land safely, but the only time people hear about flights in the news is when they crash.
Trade policy is a lot like that, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said during the second day of his two-day trip to Maine to tout President Barack Obama’s National Export Initiative.
Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas before Obama tapped him to be the nation’s top trade ambassador, heard plenty of plane crash-type stories on Friday from participants of a round-table discussion organized by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine. Kirk also visited the Verso Paper Co. mill in Bucksport earlier in the day.
The biggest concern voiced by representatives of Maine’s paper industry, manufacturing sector and top labor officials was the need to level the playing field with other countries.
Dan Lawson, a longtime employee for Verso Paper, singled out China, which he said offers massive subsidies to certain industries and doesn’t have the same environmental or safety regulations as those imposed on U.S. companies.
Jim Gardner, town manager of Ashland, an Aroostook County community that recently lost a lumber mill to outsourcing, said Canada also receives unfair subsidies. Steven Wight, who worked for ZF Lemforder in Brewer for 22 years before it closed earlier this year, said the biggest punch in the gut for him was training Mexican workers to do his job.
Kirk said his main motivation for participating in the discussion was to listen and bring back ideas to Washington, but he didn’t disagree with many of the concerns. He admitted that past trade policies have helped some and hurt others but stressed that trade is essential.
“We can’t live in a world where we say if we just stop trading, jobs are going to come back. It’s not going to happen,” Kirk said.
The U.S. has long been a big consumer of foreign products but Kirk said Obama’s National Export Initiative seeks to create more exporting opportunities. In turn, he said, it will create jobs.
Michaud, the congressman from Maine’s hard-hit 2nd Congressional District, has been critical of U.S. trade deals in the past. He said he was happy to host the trade ambassador, but urged more action.
“I am glad that Ambassador Kirk had the opportunity to hear directly from Mainers,” the congressman said. “I think the message he got was clear. While we appreciate the Obama administration’s focus on increasing exports, it is not a complete strategy.”
The biggest complaint by Michaud and others was the North American Free Trade Agreement and similar trade deals, but Kirk was quick to point out that it wasn’t the Obama administration that championed those deals.
He also said NAFTA was crucial in creating a trade pact with Canada, which he referred to as a $3 billion-a-day relationship. While many industries in Maine have been hurt by international trade deals, Kirk said there are plenty of other states, including many agriculturally rich states west of the Mississippi River, that have benefited and would like to see even more trade opportunities.
Kirk also said the country has learned from past deals. Many in Maine have lamented the 2006 Softwood Lumber Agreement with Canada, and Kirk said his office has been studying the pact for months and could issue a decision soon that could amend the agreement, something Michaud welcomed.
“Enforcement is a key component of making sure our trade policy works for our businesses and workers,” Michaud said. “The decision shouldn’t be delayed further. The final determination on softwood lumber must force all Canadian provinces to comply with the agreement and provide relief to American forest industry workers.”
Michaud chairs the House Trade Working Group, a collection of lawmakers advocating fair trade policies that has been working to promote a new trade model that benefits American workers and businesses. One of the group’s key initiatives is a bill championed by Michaud called the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment, or TRADE, Act.
Kirk, who has visited many states since taking on the position of U.S. trade representative, said he understands the difference of opinions on trade but he has been encouraged by the tenor of the debate
“I was concerned that we would be bitterly divided like we were on health care,” he said. “I’m not hearing people saying that they are against trade, but that our partners are taking advantage of us.”