WASHINGTON -- When Russia formally joined the World Trade Organization as its newest member in August, more than 150 countries began expanding trade with the ninth-largest economy in the world.
One big country did not: the United States.
Much to the consternation of business and trade officials around the nation, Congress has refused to approve a permanent trade pact with Russia, even though it has won broad bipartisan backing. As yet another sign of the deadlock in Washington, House and Senate leaders so far have not allowed the deal to come up for a final vote.
With time running out in the current Congress, pro-trade groups want the agreement high on the agenda when members return to work for a lame-duck session after Election Day. If the deal is not approved soon, they warn, the United States will miss a chance to export more products to 140 million consumers in Russia.
The stalled pact is partly the result of election-year politics and worries that Russia has not done enough to improve its record on human rights. Earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Russia the nation’s top geopolitical foe, but he supports the deal as long as the U.S. agrees to do more to crack down on human-rights violations.
But backers of the deal remain upbeat.
“It’s a tough time right now – people are feeling vulnerable in lots of ways, and so it’s not easy for us to talk about the benefits from these free-trade agreements,” said Jean Davis, director of international trade with the North Carolina Department of Commerce. “But we really try to push for these things. We’re patient, and this is just another natural progression, so we understand people’s hesitation.”
In North Carolina, the nation’s third-largest poultry exporter, turkey growers would benefit from lower tariffs, while the state’s financial services industry would be helped by new rules that would make it easier for U.S. firms to conduct business in Russia.
With tariffs on chemicals set to fall from 20 percent to 5 percent, Davis said the chemical industry – which already leads the state in exports – would be the biggest winner. The state exported $261 million worth of products to Russia in 2011, she said, with chemicals, mineral products and electrical equipment leading the way.
Texas exported the most products to Russia in 2011, followed by Illinois, California, New York and Washington, according to the Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade.
In Texas, exports to Russia grew 32 percent from 2010 to 2011, hitting $1.6 billion, the trade coalition said. Machinery exports topped the list, followed by chemicals, transportation equipment, computer and electronic products and fabricated metal products. And it meant big business for individual firms: Atlas Copco Drilling Solutions, in Garland, Texas, exported more than $4.1 million worth of heavy drilling equipment, while ExxonMobil Corp. partnered with a Russian company to develop oil in the Arctic, the Black Sea and Siberia.
“It would be good for Texas, it would be good for the United States, and it’s good for Russia,” said Joe Barnes, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
He said concerns over Russia’s human-rights record should not stop the trade pact.