Thursday, July 7, 2011

The TAA-FTA "Deal": The Law, Ctd.

On Tuesday, I blogged about whether the Obama administration's brilliant plan to jam through Congress joint legislation containing Trade Adjustment Assistance and the US-Korea FTA would, based on a reasonable reading of the law, qualify for the procedural protections afforded FTA implementing bills under Trade Promotion Authority.  My conclusions were that the White House's legislation shouldn't qualify for TPA, but that the Senate could - and probably would - just ignore the law.

Phil Levy picks up where I left off and opines on the broader implications of a decision by the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to ignore the law and go through with their plans to move the TAA-FTA bill using TPA.  His conclusions are as depressing as they are correct (emphasis mine):
This [fast track] process worked until April of 2008, when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi demonstrated, to widespread surprise, that Congress had not really committed itself at all: When President Bush tried to submit the Colombia FTA under Trade Promotion Authority, she just changed House rules and blocked it. This dealt the first serious blow to the underpinnings of U.S. trade policy.

Last week, the administration dealt the second such blow. By stuffing TAA into the Korea FTA implementing bill - i.e., by protecting it with Trade Promotion Authority that was supposed to be reserved exclusively for these trade agreements -- it may have sounded the death knell for this critical trade procedure.

The maneuver may well work.... But there is a significant future trade agenda now at serious risk. The administration has ambitious negotiations underway for a Trans-Pacific Partnership that could set the rules for trade with Asia. Global leaders have repeatedly called for a conclusion to beleaguered talks under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. For any of these, the White House will need new trade promotion authority. Such authority was hard to come by even in the best of circumstances. What chance would it have now, if it is interpreted as giving any White House the right to attach controversial and unrelated spending measures in a protected way?

The passage of the pending FTAs is long overdue. The compromise on TAA is acceptable, if it paves the way for a necessary reworking of the program. But, as with mishandled fireworks, the administration's narrow and divisive approach to solving the present impasse may prove crippling for U.S. trade policy in years to come.
In short, the Obama administration's attempt to use the KORUS FTA and a dangerously expansive interpretation of TPA as a sketchy vehicle for achieving a narrow political victory on TAA might win the legislative battles over the Korea, Colombia and Panama FTAs, but the plan seriously risks losing the bigger war over the future of American trade policy and potential trade agreements worth far more than the three currently being debated.  So free traders really need to ask themselves the following question:

If the President refuses to yield and a joint TAA-FTA package passed under fast track really ends up being the only way forward, is it worth it?

I think we all know which direction I'm leaning these days.  And that's pretty sad.

Finally, let's also not forget that, considering that all of the troubling TPA chicanery noted above has come from Democratic politicians doing the bidding of anti-trade American labor unions, the big winner from the passage of these FTAs might just be the very folks most opposed to them - the unions.  (No, seriously.)  In the process of "losing" the current FTA battles, their elected minions might just ensure the demise of future trade deals and America's long history of leading global trade liberalization initiatives.  Such a result would be one helluva "win" for them.

And one helluva loss for the American people.

[UPDATE: I somehow forgot to mention that the Obama administration's erosion of TPA's value actually began last December with its steadfast assertions that the Agreement's renegotiated automobile provisions would somehow not remove the deal from TPA's procedural protections.  So, really, the joint TAA-FTA package is the third blow to the longstanding congressional-executive agreement on TPA (and fast track before it).  The third, however, definitely remains the most egregious and problematic for the reasons Phil states.]

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