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Trade: An Important Democratic Legacy for America

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(I continue to be undecided about the Trans Pacific Partnership, but I do believe that President Obama deserves the right to negotiate the best possible deal he can get (e.g., one with strong protections for labor, the environment, and human rights), then have Congress vote on that deal.   – promoted by lowkell)

The trade bill spectacle in the House of Representatives Friday saw a strong majority of Democrats not only reject the entreaty of their own President Obama but also repudiate a legacy of Democrats from FDR and Truman through Carter and Clinton.

Fortunately, they will have an opportunity to correct what I consider to be an unfortunate, although understandable, vote in the coming week and grant the president the same kind of trade negotiating authority that was given every previous president in the modern age.

The global trading system was a liberal vision launched at the end of World War II and expanded with U.S. leadership in subsequent decades. Working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I was privileged to play a bit part securing congressional approval of the Tokyo Round agreement in 1979. As a journalist since 1981, I have studied in depth the politics and substance of the Uruguay Round agreement that created the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement and several other bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.

At a glance, it might appear that this proliferation of trade agreements is connected with the loss of manufacturing jobs and stagnation of middle class wages over the last 40-some years. But on more thorough analysis, I am convinced that job losses are due more to technology and other factors unrelated to trade agreements and the inequality in wealth and income is a product of unwise, Republican-driven tax policies that encourage wealth to trickle upwards.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, now being negotiated with some dozen Pacific Rim nations likewise does not threaten American jobs. The United States has few barriers now to imports from those nations. By contrast, many of the negotiating parties erect obstacles to buying American goods and services. It is those countries’ tariffs and their barriers – especially those sanitary rules without a scientific basis – to American exports that would come down under TPP.

Two examples, both involving agricultural trade with which I am most familiar: our negotiators are asking Japan to phase out high tariffs on dairy and other food products and insisting that Canada relax the most restrictive barriers in the western Hemisphere to dairy products. Both countries’ consumers are potential buyers of food products made by U.S. workers. The prime ministers of both countries are under political pressure to retain those barriers. Without the assurance of TPA that the Obama Administration can reach a final agreement, neither country will be able to summon the political will to stand up to powerful interest groups.

Members of Congress have been bombarded by calls and petitions from interest groups that sincerely believe that trade agreements – as opposed to simply trading without the discipline of agreements – are the cause of job loss. Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators and northern Virginia’s two Democratic congressmen were among the targets of those efforts. All four demonstrated political courage to stand with President Obama and vote for expanded trade.

My congressman, Rep. Don Beyer of the 8th District, explained his reasoning in a letter Friday that responded to my email to him urging support for TPA. He cites many examples of barriers in Pacific Rim countries that could be reduced or eliminated through TPP. Beyer also cites the potential for the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which could open some of Europe’s restricted markets to American goods and services. Read his letter here.

Both Beyer and Rep. Gerry Connolly of the 10th District, who is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recognized the importance of maintaining strong U.S. influence in the Pacific Rim. In a statement last month, Connolly said the TPA legislation asserts congressional prerogatives and insists that the agreement meet specific objectives such as labor rights, environmental protection and human rights. Congress should mitigate the inevitable effect of trade, providing training and help for workers who have lost jobs as a result of trade. “But we cannot use trade as a scapegoat, and ignore the realities of the globalized economy,” he said.

It is important that other Democrats stand with the president on this issue – and for right-thinking Republicans to agree on trade adjustment assistance for workers. To refuse to go forward would be a defeat not only for President Obama but for the standing of the United States in the world.