Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, apparently on course to be the next U.S. trade representative, told senators yesterday that his main objective as the nation's top trade official would be enforcing existing laws and insisting that U.S. trade partners play by the rules.
Revelations that Kirk had tax payment problems, like several other Obama administration nominees, were barely mentioned in the abbreviated confirmation hearing of the Senate Finance Committee.
The panel's chairman, Max Baucus (D-Mont.), noted that Kirk had made "regrettable but, I believe, honest mistakes" and added that the nominee had taken steps to remedy them. A confirmation hearing set for last week was postponed after the committee made it known that Kirk had underpaid the Internal Revenue Service by about $10,000 earlier in the decade.
"I believe that you are the best man for the job," Baucus said. Republicans on the committee did not raise the tax issue, and none voiced opposition to Kirk's nomination. The hearing was cut short when senators had to leave for a long series of floor votes.
Kirk, generally supported by the business community as an advocate of expanded trade, made it clear that trade policy under President Obama would differ from that of the Bush administration, when the emphasis was on cementing new free-trade agreements.
Kirk said that he did not come to the job with "deal fever" and that he would make his top priority ensuring that existing trade partners live up to the rules that are already on the books in such areas as labor rights and environmental protection.
He said that of the three pending bilateral free-trade deals -- with Panama, Colombia and South Korea -- the Panama pact was the closest to being sent to Congress. He said that the agreement with South Korea offered "one of the biggest opportunities we have" to expand U.S. sales abroad but that the current accord "just simply isn't fair." He said that the administration "will step away from that if we don't get it right."
Baucus, who supports free trade, said that with the world economy in shambles and protectionist sentiments growing, Kirk would face pressure to oppose new trade deals. "Your job will be to fight a rear-guard action to combat new barriers to trade," he said.
Last week, 350 union, environmental, farm and religious groups sent a letter to Congress stressing that the recent election demonstrated "a relentless demand from the American public" for changes in trade policy. They said that negotiations with China over a bilateral investment treaty should be halted and that not one of the three pending free-trade agreements can pass a "do no further harm" test.
They said Panama's economy relies on banking secrecy and money laundering, Colombia has a history of violence against union and civil rights groups, and the deal with South Korea includes major deregulation of the financial services sector and does not correct the imbalance in automobile trade.
Kirk said all three agreements would undergo a comprehensive review before being presented to Congress.
On the other side, the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), said Obama risks losing the support of Republicans if he tries to reopen a 2007 compromise between the Bush administration and congressional Democrats under which labor and environmental concerns were given greater weight in future trade agreements.