Delaying TPA Threatens Rural Economy

05/14/2015 10:40 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

By delaying action on Trade Promotion Authority legislation, Congress threatens the future of American agriculture and the rural way of life.

Today, our farmers, ranchers and rural communities are more prosperous and successful thanks to strong trade agreements. Last year, American agricultural exports grew to a record $152.5 billion and the past six years represent the strongest in history for U.S. agricultural trade. For many American products, foreign markets now represent more than half of total sales. Trade literally supports American agriculture and the rural communities that depend on farm income.

Trade agreements are a driving force behind expanded U.S. exports. And these trade agreements were only possible because our negotiators could speak with one voice and negotiate free and fair trade deals that opened new markets and new customers to our farmers and ranchers.

Without fast track authority, American agriculture--and millions of Americans connected to food, agriculture and transportation--cedes momentum and leadership on the world stage. The United States should be writing the trade rules on labor and human rights, the environment, and intellectual property. But every moment Congress delays takes power out of the hands of the American farmer and puts it into the hands of our foreign competitors.

But for most Americans, this is about more than dollars and diplomacy--it's about keeping a good paying job and preserving their communities, and exports and the jobs that come with them make that possible.

New trade agreements benefit more than just the segment of the American population directly involved in producing our food. Expanded export opportunities also benefit the packers, processors, shippers and others employed at every step in the production chain. Agricultural exports support more than one million American jobs. Moreover, additional farm income and agribusiness jobs generate more cash flow in rural economies, supporting local businesses on main street. In parts of rural America, these jobs are critical to preserving our small towns and rural way of life. Expanded U.S. trade overall has added roughly $13,000, on average, to every American family's income.

That vital economic and community development progress will be undone if Congress refuses to act on the Trade Promotion Authority legislation currently being debated in both the House and the Senate.

We are all already seeing indications that the growth in agricultural exports--and the new jobs that come with it--enjoyed in years past may be at risk in the coming years. Not only does the United States face barriers in important growing markets like Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and the European Union, we are currently being hurt as these countries negotiate agreements that lower barriers for our competitors, some of whom have lower standards when it comes to environmental impact, consumer safety, and working conditions.

That is why more than 70 organizations from all over the United States representing American farmers and ranchers of all sizes and production methods support Trade Promotion Authority. Former Republican and Democrat Secretaries of Agriculture serving as far back as the Carter Administration recently published an open letter in support of Trade Promotion Authority. Democratic former governors have also called on Congress for the speedy passage of Trade Promotion Authority.

They know that trade is vital for U.S. agriculture and the American economy as a whole. Ninety-five percent of the world's consumers live outside of our borders, and the only way to reach them is through expanded trade agreements that treat U.S. products and producers fairly.

They know that our farmers and ranchers will be left behind and shut out from the negotiations each day that goes by without fast track authority for the President and his trade negotiators. We can't hope to get the best deal for American businesses, workers, and consumers unless the United States is helping to write the rules.

Bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority is not new. Congress must act in the best interests of every American and give this Administration the same negotiating authority that American Presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, has had over the past 80 years. To do anything less would be a detriment to our nation's strongest and most productive industries, including agriculture.

It's time for Congress to stand up for American businesses, communities and families, rural and urban alike, and pass Trade Promotion Authority legislation.

Tom Vilsack serves as the Nation's 30th Secretary of Agriculture.