Fast-track’s welcome revival
Our view: House approved TPA a welcome step toward Asian trade agreement
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.