Congressional rejection of a key bill linked to President Obama’s free-trade agenda last week has been cast in terms of what it might mean for major players in Washington, D.C. There’s no doubt that the vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) was a setback for Obama’s legislative priorities, let alone his legacy. And Hillary Clinton, who CNN reports pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement 45 times as secretary of state, looks political, not presidential, as she hedges on trade promotion authority (so-called “fast track”), which allows a president to negotiate a free-trade agreement that Congress would decide upon with an up-or-down vote.
Ultimately, the Beltway protagonists in the free-trade drama are less important than the American people. And Congress is selling them short. U.S. workers can and indeed need to compete globally to sell to the 95 percent of consumers who live outside America. U.S. consumers and most workers benefit from free trade. Inevitably, however, some workers are displaced, which is why Democrats have been right to long insist on help for workers under Trade Adjustment Assistance.
But a majority of House Democrats cynically voted against TAA because it was tied to fast-track and, ultimately, TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), which would link the United States and the European Union.
On Tuesday, the House voted for a six-week delay before a possible revote on the issue. In the interim, representatives, including the five Minnesota Democrats who voted “no,” should consider several issues.
Blocking free-trade agreements won’t block globalization. But it will make it more likely that the rules will be written by China and not the United States. On this point Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner, who are at odds on almost everything else, agree.
“These kind of agreements make sure that the global economy’s rules aren’t written by countries like China; they’re written by the United States of America,” Obama said in a statement. Added Boehner: “When America leads, the world is safer, for freedom and free enterprise, and if we don’t lead, we’re allowing and essentially inviting China to go right on setting the rules of the world economy.”
A safer world is the encompassing concern of 17 former secretaries of defense and retired military leaders who have backed fast-track authority in an open letter to Congress: “The stakes are clear. There are tremendous strategic benefits to TPP and T-TIP, and there would be harmful strategic consequences if we fail to secure these agreements. In both the Asia-Pacific and the Atlantic, our allies and partners would question our commitments, doubt our resolve and inevitably look to other partners. America’s prestige, influence and leadership are on the line.”
At a time of increasing economic and security uncertainty, it’s a time for the U.S. to lead, not retreat. Obama and Congress need to keep pushing on trade — not for any politician’s legacy, but for America’s future prosperity and security.