Democratic roadblocks to free trade must be torn down

There was a time, not so long ago, when the value of international trade was understood by American leaders across the political spectrum. President George W. Bush signed a number of free trade agreements and spoke of America’s “commitment…to a global system based upon free and open trade.” Before that, President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the negotiations for which were begun by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush. 

In fact, in a stunning display of bipartisanship, which would be almost unthinkable today, President Clinton was joined at the White House in September 1993 by former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush for the signing ceremony of three NAFTA component agreements. Men of markedly different personalities and ideologies, two of whom had fought a bitter campaign just months before, came together because, in Clinton’s words, “we all recognize the important stakes for our nation in this issue.”

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And the stakes are no less high today. Some 38 million American jobs – nearly two in five – depend on international trade. Yet the current administration is hamstrung when it comes to expanding international trade, which could protect existing American jobs and create new ones. Previous presidents were armed with something President Obama doesn’t have: Trade Promotion Authority or TPA. 

TPA allows the president, with congressional oversight, to streamline and expedite the often-tedious process of negotiating trade agreements between the United States and other nations. As it has been done regularly since the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, TPA must be granted to the President by an Act of Congress. The latest TPA legislation, however, expired in 2007, and attempts to renew it have been held up since then.

In a sign of rare bi-partisanship, Obama and House and Senate Republicans are pushing for TPA. But, despite Obama calling specifically for “bipartisan trade promotion authority” in his most recent State of the Union Address, members of his own party in Congress continue to stand against it. The Democratic leadership in both houses form the vanguard of the anti-TPA forces. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has said that TPA was “out of the question” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed “to not push this right now.”

The political calculations behind this are not hard to discern. Reid and Pelosi, and many of their Democratic colleagues, take significant political contributions from union bosses who are known to be very much against free trade or anything that threatens their influence over American workers.

But cynical politicking is starting to hamper trade prospects.  A Japanese newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, recently reported from Ottawa, where negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) were being held, that, if enacted, it would enhance trade between the U.S. and eleven Pacific countries, which already support nearly 15 million jobs.

In Ottawa, representatives from some TPP nations wanted to set the date of the next meeting, which could finalize the deal, for September or October. The U.S., however, objected. According to Yomiuri Shimbun, “[T]he U.S. side strongly opposed the moves. This is because reaching a basic agreement before the U.S. midterm elections on November 4 could worsen the poll climate for the ruling Democratic Party.”

Obama, the highest-ranking official of the “ruling Democratic Party” at the moment, has expressed his support for TPP. However, at a joint press conference in June with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, President Obama said he hoped for an agreement “by the time we see each other again in November, when I travel to Asia.” But that won’t be until after the midterm elections.

If Obama is serious about calling for passage of TPA and supporting free trade agreements with our allies, he and his trade representatives must not finagle their negotiations just because it might be politically inconvenient for fellow Democrats. In order to advance these agreements that support American jobs, the President should be putting pressure on members of his own party, not adjusting vital negotiations to give them political cover.

Williams is the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a conservation advocacy organization.