The divided U.S. House hit a new wall late last week. It failed to give President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate an international trade deal. The failed bill, known as trade promotion authority or TPA, was the first of two trade bills that together would have major, lasting ramifications for the Pacific Northwest.
TPA is a good idea on principle. In a nutshell, it puts U.S. approval of foreign trade agreements on a streamlined path requiring an up or down vote, but no amendments, when they get to Congress for approval.
Our U.S. senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both voted for it once retraining protections for displaced workers were linked to the vote last month. We had thought our congressman, Rep. Denny Heck, should vote for it, too.
To our surprise, Heck voted against TPA, but we respect his reasoning.
Heck wasn’t just voting no to trade and he voted yes on the trade adjustment assistance provision (TAA) that provides job-training help to workers whose jobs vanish because of global trade. TAA dollars now flow to Shelton for displaced timber workers, for example.
Heck was mainly protesting against the abysmal failure of our Congress to pass other trade-related measures, such as extending the charter of the Export-Import Bank, or economic growth actions, such as improving infrastructure..
He’s right on the Ex-Im Bank issue. If you care about trade, you ought to care about the Ex-Im Bank, too. You would think that Republicans who support TPA would also support Ex-Im, but they haven’t broken ranks or tried to force a vote before the bank’s charter expires at the end of the month.
Of course, some critics are going to look at Heck’s vote as a vote against trade. That’s because in scuttling the TPA, Congress might have also killed the larger piece in the trade package — the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The TPP, as it’s known, is still being finalized by 12 Pacific Rim nations including the U.S. It aims to lower trade barriers and is a major Obama project. We don’t have a clear view of TPP yet because it’s provisions are being negotiated behind closed doors.
There are legitimate fears about the Trans-Pacific deal. It could be pretty good or really, really bad. It depends on whether it protects workers’ rights and the environment or gives countries with low standards too much advantage over more regulated producers in the U.S.
House GOP leaders were looking to see if they could revive TPA for a new vote.
If fast-track trade authority is eventually passed, trade adjustment aid for displaced workers must be part of the deal. A failing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was the inadequate retraining available to workers whose jobs went overseas because of global trade.
If Heck’s stand against the fast-track measure ends up sparking action on broader trade issues like Ex-Im Bank, then more power to him and others who joined that protest, and we’ll look forward to his pro-TPA vote in the future.
We still think it makes sense to hold streamlined votes on trade deals. TPA is a yes-or-no proposition for Congress, and it makes more sense than leaving details of trade deals up to the squabbling Congress. Current conditions ought to clinch our argument on this point.
As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself, if it wasn’t killed outright by Friday’s House maneuvers, its provisions must be fully aired before Congress takes any vote. We are counting on Heck and Sens. Murray and Cantwell to bring scrutiny so that labor and environmental concerns are addressed.
Ultimately the TPP needs to stand on its merits, or fall on its shortcomings.