During the Bush administration, congressional Democrats never tired of finding reasons to oppose important free-trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama: The deals were too unfriendly to U.S. automakers, they complained, or they didn't protect against human rights abuses, or they failed to guarantee that foreign companies wouldn't undercut American competitors by underpaying their workers. Under President Obama, the agreements have been renegotiated to erase nearly all those objections, and they finally seemed poised for approval. Except now it's Republicans who are standing in the way.
On Tuesday, the White House struck a deal with Senate Democratic leaders that could end a logjam on the three trade agreements. At issue was an obscure, 50-year-old program called Trade Adjustment Assistance, which aids workers who have lost their jobs due to foreign competition, providing them with job retraining, health insurance payments and other benefits. In May, the Obama administration announced that it wouldn't submit the pacts to a congressional vote unless they were coupled with an extension of the program. That angered Republicans, who see the program as an unfair and unnecessary expense.
The trade assistance program was expanded in 2009 to boost payouts and include service-sector employees as well as factory workers, but those added benefits expired in February. The deal reached this week would extend the additional benefits until 2014, at a slightly less generous level. We've got mixed feelings about that. Free trade leads to job losses because it increases competition for American manufacturers, but it also spurs job growth as overseas markets for American goods expand, and lower-priced foreign goods help U.S. paychecks stretch further. It seems reasonable to provide government help for the American victims of globalization, but it's questionable whether these workers are more deserving of aid than people who lose their jobs because of, say, new technologies or tough domestic competition.
In any event, the fact that Democrats have linked the three trade pacts to the trade assistance program is nothing new; what's new is that Republicans aren't going along. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) wants the program separated from the pacts, as does Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Their commitment to conservative principles might seem admirable, but their intransigence makes it likely that the trade pacts — a key priority of Republicans for several years — will fail. Without an extension of the program, it would be extremely difficult to drum up enough Democratic support to get the pacts through Congress.
The three trade pacts are expected to pump $13 billion a year into the U.S. economy, making them much too important to be stalled by a relatively minor budget spat. Republicans will be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory if they don't back down.