On Monday this week, the White House finally sent to Congress for approval the free-trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The Senate Finance Committee is already tackling the legislation by holding today a “mock” markup of all three implementation bills. Only this time, after President Barack Obama re-negotiated key provisions of the agreements to please segments of the Democratic base, it isn’t President Obama or his labor cohorts that are putting trade expansion at risk—but the Republicans in Congress.
Included in the FTAs sent to the Hill this week is a provision for continued funding of trade adjustment assistance (TAA). Designed to provide support for U.S. workers hurt by foreign trade, TAA has been a part of every trade bill since the 1960s, making it easier for Democratic representatives to vote in favor of trade by avoiding the charge that they were coldly placing global economic concerns over the interests of domestic labor.
Now, though, Congressional Republicans have decided to use TAA as a symbol of their zeal to cut public spending. Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative John Boehner have stated their intent to separate it from the vote on the FTAs—a move that will complicate Democratic support. The targeting of TAA as an example of economically damaging profligacy, though, is spurious; the budget for TAA is only estimated to account for $1 billion. This amounts to a drop in the bucket compared to the $13 billion of new exports that the FTAs are expected to generate for the U.S. economy.
Moreover, the tactic represents political cynicism at its worse. Since the agreements were originally negotiated under the George W. Bush administration, Republicans have derided Democrats as hurting American jobs and betraying U.S. allies when they have balked at supporting them. They were right then. But at the time they were negotiated, it was reasonable to expect—on the part of Republicans and Democrats alike—that TAA would be part of the package, as it has been for decades. Now, Republicans are changing the game. If they insist on sticking to their new rules, they will be the ones who will hurt the U.S. economy, U.S. workers and abandon U.S. allies who committed to an FTA under a Republican president.
*Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.