What’s with the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office and Small Businesses?

I’m beginning to wonder just how important small businesses are to the agency that takes the lead in developing U.S. policy on trade and trade-related investment.

The last article written about small business on the Web site of the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office was posted on May 4, 2005. It was an article by Gregory Walters, then director of the USTR’s Small Business Affairs, anciently titled “How Important is CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement], really?” Checking the site’s “Biographies of USTR’s Key Officials,” there is no mention of anyone having anything to do with the Office of Small Business Affairs.

That office does exist, but who’s running it? It was established in 2002 “to address small business concerns in the development, negotiation, and implementation of U.S. trade policy.” It is committed to addressing the changing and differing needs of U.S. small businesses in the trade policy arena, the Web site says. “Whether assisting with a customs issue, addressing an enforcement concern, or educating small businesses on their important role in trade, the Office of Small Business Affairs prides itself on responsiveness,” it says.

Trade policy supposedly is developed with small and medium-sized businesses in mind. It is designed, in large part, to pry open overseas markets-with a crowbar if necessary, as a previous trade representative once threatened-so that these businesses can sell their goods and services to the 95 percent of the world’s consumers who reside beyond U.S. borders. In the current recessionary environment, small businesses have been thrust into the limelight as the hoped-for “engine of economic growth.” In big-business-lobby-dominated Washington, they are the previously unsung heroes who, many now know, create most of the jobs in the United States. Using data from the Census Bureau, USTR boasts that roughly 65 percent of all U.S. exporters are businesses with fewer than 20 employees; that small exporters account for 97 percent of all U.S. exporters and about one-third (more than $600 billion) of the value of U.S. exports; and that more than half of the manufacturing firms that export are small businesses.

So why is there no one in charge of Small Business Affairs? Who’s making sure that office does what it says it does? Who at USTR is listening to small businesses to factor their concerns into “the development, negotiation and implementation of U.S. trade policy?”

Our new point man on trade is Ron Kirk, a lawyer and the former mayor of Dallas-the first African-American in that mayoral role. His is one of the most important portfolios in the Obama administration. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 18, Ambassador Kirk is the president’s principal trade advisor, negotiator and spokesperson on trade issues. He’s the one who will make and enforce the multilateral, regional, bilateral and sector-specific deals that will keep U.S. goods and services flowing into foreign markets, spurring economic growth in the process.

Business likes Ambassador Kirk. Prior to taking up the role of USTR, he was a lawyer and lobbyist for Vinson & Elkins, the leading corporate law firm in Houston and one of the leading firms globally in energy, utility and petroleum-law practice. No matter that he has no experience as a trade negotiator and no significant reputation as an international trade lawyer. With a politician’s prowess for striking deals and a reputation as one of the most successful lobbyists in the state of Texas, he brings to the role the power of persuasion.

I’d like him to persuade me, as quickly as possible, that small businesses really will matter under his watch.