Baltimore Sun

Fast-track’s welcome revival

Our view: House approved TPA a welcome step toward Asian trade agreement

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The legislativ­e legerdemai­n employed yesterday to revive and pass the Trade Promotion Authority or “fast-track” bill in the House by a 10-vote margin after last Friday’s embarrassi­ng setback is not nearly as important as the measure’s substance. America can’t afford to ignore the opportunit­ies offered by foreign trade, particular­ly in the Pacific Rim, and this sets the stage for considerat­ion of the regional free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnershi­p in the future.

Clearly, there are some people in Congress who oppose negotiated trade deals under most any circumstan­ces and therefore oppose fast-track merely to make it impossible for President Barack Obama to move forward the TPP. This odd-couple coalition of organized labor, liberal Democrats and those far-right Republican­s who reliably oppose Mr. Obama at every turn has offered a lot of half-truths and misreprese­ntations about trade and what it means for the economy of this country.

Let’s set the record straight. First, the trade deal isn’t on the block right now, only the kind of fast-track authority that has been used to consider trade pacts for decades, for Democratic and Republican administra­tions alike. This is not something extraordin­ary; refusing it outright would be the historic oddity and a sign that the U.S. is retreating into global isolation.

Critics would have Americans believe that free trade equals job losses, but the opposite is true. The Far East represents the fastest-growing market in the world. Why wouldn’t the U.S. seek to help American-made products enter that market? Indeed, this is one part of the world where the U.S. enjoys a trade surplus, selling more products in the 11 other TPP countries than it imports from them, according to an analysis of 2011 data.

Take U.S. computer chip manufactur­ing, for instance, which faces tariffs applied to electronic devices like the iPhone when they enter a foreign country. Without a trade agreement, that potential market will be dominated by China — or those countries may pass protection­ist laws mandating that semiconduc­tors be manufactur­ed there. Why should Silicon Valley companies lose that business to overseas competitor­s? Because some of the newly created manufactur­ing jobs may end up overseas? That would seem a short-sighted view.

And here’s another myth that critics like to throw around — that the trade deal is being negotiated in a suspicious­ly secretive manner. That’s false. There have been hundreds of congressio­nal briefings on the TPP practicall­y since negotiatio­ns started in 2009 and the fact that the draft version of the document can’t be published is standard procedure for trade deals. Meanwhile, the fast-track authority doesn’t represent an up or down vote on any trade deal. Congress will still have opportunit­y to reject or approve the TPP and will have 60 days to review the final text.

This country has a lot of legitimate trade issues, from maintainin­g intellectu­al property rights to protecting the environmen­t. And yes, there are sometimes individual industries that suffer under free trade even as others prosper. That’s why it’s vital that Congress also pass the trade adjustment assistance (or TAA) that was stripped from the House bill to help retrain workers and provide new employment opportunit­ies for those who have been displaced through trade agreements. This, too, has been a standard practice in the past, and it was disappoint­ing to see it become part of the political upheaval of recent weeks.

Too often ignored in this debate are the consequenc­es of doing nothing to improve trade. One of the most obvious is to allow China to become an economic juggernaut. Trade that might have gone to the U.S. will end up in China. That could spell trouble not only for the U.S. economy but for national security as China wields its economic influence for political goals.

The measure goes back to the Senate, and Congress has already mucked up the fast-track bill sufficient­ly to give pause to some of our trading partners and push considerat­ion of the TPP far enough forward (to the fall at the earliest) that presidenti­al primary politics may yet intervene. While such dysfunctio­n is hardly surprising, free trade ought to transcend the usual inside-the-beltway pettiness. The future of the country is at stake here, and it requires only a cursory view of history and economics to recognize that isolationi­sm and protection­ism don’t lead to prosperity and security. The opportunit­y for economic growth and investment in the Asia-Pacific region is available to U.S. companies, but the process must start by getting the Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance bills on Mr. Obama’s desk as soon as possible.

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