WASHINGTON – President Obama’s desire to obtain greater authority in negotiating trade pacts is, in an unusual twist, drawing more support from congressional Republicans than from his Democratic allies, who fear new treaties could carry a negative impact on the nation’s jobs situation.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman received a cool reception from Democrats during an appearance before the Senate Finance Committee where he touted legislation to provide the White House with so-called fast-track authority, which would allow the president to proposed trade agreements to Congress for an up-or-down vote without any amendments.
Froman told lawmakers that “America has always been strongest when it speaks with one voice” and that fast-track authority “makes clear to our trading partners that the administration and Congress are on the same page negotiating high standards in our trade agreements.”
“The Obama administration’s trade agenda is focused on expanding opportunities to export more made-in-America products, support jobs at home, and create economic growth by opening overseas markets and leveling the playing field for American workers, farmers and businesses,” Froman told the panel. “In doing so, we will continue to advocate for strong, enforceable rules that promote core U.S. values and interests, including protection of U.S. creativity and innovation, access to medicines, fundamental labor rights and robust environmental commitments.”
But those goals, Froman acknowledged, can only be met through bipartisan cooperation. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, offered his blessing, asserting that the time for fast-track authority, also known as trade promotion authority, or TPA, “is now” and that the panel “is doing all we can to help in this effort.”
“TPA is how Congress tells the administration and our negotiating partners what a trade agreement must contain to be successfully enacted into law,” Hatch said. “And TPA empowers our negotiators to get the best deal possible for American workers. To succeed in getting TPA renewed, we will need an all-out effort by the administration to make the case for why TPA is so vital to our nation’s ability to fairly engage in international trade and to enhance the health of our economy.”
“Simply put,” Hatch said, “trade means jobs.”
But committee Democrats appeared less enamored. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed concern that increased trade will do little to enhance the economic status of the nation’s middle class. His doubts were supported by several protesters positioned in the committee room, one of whom called Froman a liar during his testimony, leading to the ejection of several audience members.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the panel’s ranking member, expressed a willingness to consider the proposal, maintaining that “clinging to yesterday’s outdated trade policies is a loser for the millions of middle-class American workers counting on political leadership to help create more high-skill, high-wage, middle class jobs.”
“Trade agreements need to bulldoze barriers and open new markets to exports made by America’s middle class — the things we grow or raise, build or forge,” Wyden said. “Done right, trade agreements can help grow the paychecks of middle class families. That will help take our economic recovery from a walk to a sprint.”
At the same time, Wyden said, it’s easy to understand why American workers might be suspicious of new trade pacts when they haven’t received meaningful raises for a prolonged period of time.
“When discouraged Americans argue that they’ve been hurt by trade, their voices should not be ignored,” Wyden said. “They must be heard. Those who favor a trade agenda that takes on the challenges of a hyper-competitive global economy have a responsibility to make the case that it will work for America’s middle class.”
Wyden indicated that he and other Democrats are interested in determining the safeguards that will be in place to ensure that any workers impacted by trade have access to retraining, health coverage and other sources of support that connect them with new opportunities, as well as “how the administration will make the case to America’s workers that these modern policies will deliver for them.”
Froman said that “done right, trade policy unlocks opportunities for Americans.” In 2014, record-breaking exports, market opening initiatives, intensive engagement and trade enforcement achieved “strong results for America’s economy” — unemployment has dropped to 5.6 percent and more than 200,000 jobs are being created per month, including a gain of 786,000 new manufacturing jobs over the last five years.
“Our total exports have grown by nearly 50 percent and contributed nearly one-third of our economic growth since the second quarter of 2009,” Froman said. “In 2013, the most recent year on record, American exports reached a record high of $2.3 trillion and supported a record-breaking 11.3 million jobs. It’s clear, more exports means more good jobs and more jobs are dependent upon exports than ever before.”
The administration currently is negotiating several trade agreements that it feels will benefit from the fast-track process. Froman said the administration is drawing close to an agreement with Japan and 10 other nations in the Pacific Rim – known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — after marathon negotiations. The U.S., he said, continues to “work with Japan to address the long-standing barriers to American autos in the Japanese market.”
“We will continue to closely consult with our auto workers and industry as the negotiations proceed in order to get the best deal possible for them,” Froman said. “In agriculture, we continue to work hard to dismantle high tariffs, restrictive quotas and complex administrative policies to create new opportunities for U.S. producers.”
Although China is not part of the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, several lawmakers, including Schumer, expressed concern about that nation’s currency manipulation. Schumer said he wouldn’t support any deal that fails to address the issue.