Republicans assisted voters with aid program the party stalled

Several Republican lawmakers have sought help from a now-expired trade aid program that many in their party have bristled at reauthorizing.

In letters and faxes sent to the Labor Department obtained by The Hill under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 11 Republicans in the House and Senate forwarded constituents’ pleas or outright supported their petitions for aid under the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program. 

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Designed to fund job-training programs and healthcare benefits for workers who lost their jobs because of trade, the expanded version of TAA expired in February.

The White House has said this month it will not submit implementing legislation to Congress for the pending trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea unless an agreement is reached on renewing TAA in its expanded form. House Republicans postponed a vote on restoring the trade aid program in February due to concerns of rising federal debt and anger at the Obama administration for not moving forward with the stalled trade deals.

Overall, 18 different lawmakers — including seven Democrats — have sought help for their constituents from Labor under the trade aid program since last year’s election, according to documents provided in response to The Hill’s FOIA request.

Many congressional aides dismissed the letters as constituent casework and not representative of where their lawmakers stand on renewing TAA. Nonetheless, several members made a forceful case for petitions to the trade aid program.

In a Feb. 25 letter to Jane Oates, Labor’s assistant secretary of employment and training administration, freshman Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) urged her to approve a TAA application for laid-off workers at the NewPage Corp.’s paper mill in Stevens Point, Wis. “Cheaper alternatives from foreign competitors” hurt the mill’s business and its closure affected roughly 360 workers who live in Duffy’s district, according to the congressman.

“Until lawmakers are able to solve the trade problems to level the playing field and until the paper market is able to adjust, it is incumbent upon us to provide assistance for the families who suffer as a result [of] these practices and conditions,” Duffy wrote. “I urge you to approve their application for Trade Adjustment Assistance.”

An aide to Duffy said the lawmaker does not oppose extending the trade aid program.

“Congressman Duffy is not opposed to extending TAA — the decision to postpone consideration of this measure was out of his hands — and he will always advocate on behalf of his constituents when appropriate,” said Daniel Son, a Duffy spokesman. “He remains hopeful that the administration will put aside partisan interests and stop holding free trade agreements hostage — free trade agreements that will create jobs, promote economic growth and ensure America remains competitive in the global marketplace.”

Other lawmakers were straightforward in their letters on trade aid. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote a Nov. 12, 2010, letter to Labor saying that “one of my constituents [name redacted] contacted me regarding a problem that he has encountered and I am hopeful that you may be of assistance.”

Cantor’s letter was referred to Oates, who looked into how his constituent could receive jobless benefits, including those available under TAA. A Cantor aide said the lawmaker’s letter simply passed along a constituent’s concerns.

Though the program has drawn bipartisan support in the past, conservative Republicans have raised problems with TAA.

In the days before the House was expected to vote on the trade aid program, the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) released a legislative bulletin listing “conservative concerns” with TAA, saying it picks “winners and losers” and some of its services are “duplicative” of other jobless aid initiatives. The bloc of Republicans said not extending the 2009 TAA provisions authorized under the stimulus package could free up $6.5 billion over 10 years for deficit reduction.

Other prominent Republicans oppose renewing the program’s 2009 provisions as well, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“Sen. McCain is not opposed to the Trade Adjustment Assistance program as it was passed in 2002, but he does not support the current attempt to turn what was sold as a temporary expansion of TAA under the 2009 stimulus into a permanent government program at significant cost to the American taxpayer at a time of fiscal crisis,” said Brooke Buchanan, a McCain spokeswoman.

McCain has recently sought help under TAA. He wrote a Feb. 10 letter to Labor asking it to help a constituent “who has a question regarding the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.”

“This issue is unrelated to Sen. McCain’s efforts to help his constituents receive answers to the questions they pose to our government. The senator has always forwarded his constituents’ concerns and questions to unresponsive government agencies, be it on TAA or any other matter, and he will continue to do so,” Buchanan said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said despite Republicans writing letters asking for TAA help on behalf of their constituents, it has not turned into support for the program in Congress.

“They are not voting that way. They continue to want to do free trade on the cheap,” Brown said.

Brown helped organize a letter sent to President Obama on Monday supporting his call to renew TAA. Forty-one Democratic senators signed onto the letter, and it follows a similar letter sent to Obama last week from 162 House Democrats.

 Brown and other Democrats have championed renewing TAA in its 2009 form since it expanded eligibility for the program to include service workers. Since it was amended in 2009, TAA has helped an estimated 435,000 workers, according to Democrats. Roughly 185,000 of those workers might not have been eligible for its aid without the 2009 reforms, Democrats say.

In a Dec. 17, 2010, letter, Brown wrote to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to support a TAA petition for laid-off workers at Navistar International in Springfield, Ohio. Another TAA supporter, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), has written six letters to Labor since last election looking for trade aid help for his constituents. Casey was the most prolific writer for TAA help among the documents provided in response to The Hill’s FOIA request.

Like Brown and Casey, other lawmakers have sought TAA help for their constituents.

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“Enclosed you will find information our office recently received from our constituent [name redacted, who] is requesting Trade Adjustment Assistance from the Department of Labor in helping pay for his [COBRA] premium,” Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) — considered a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — wrote in a Dec. 21, 2010, letter to Labor. “I would appreciate any input you have concerning this situation.”

A Latham aide said the lawmaker is a TAA supporter.

“If the vote on TAA went ahead, Congressman Latham would have supported it because what we are being told by our constituents is that it was beneficial to them,” said James Carstensen, Latham’s chief of staff. “His support of or opposition to TAA would have nothing to do with this letter. It would have went out regardless on behalf of the constituent.”

Carstensen said lawmakers act as “ombudsmen” to the federal government, helping constituents solve their problems with various agencies.

Nevertheless, disagreement remains in Congress over whether and how TAA should be reauthorized, with several Republicans balking at Democrats’ demands to keep its 2009 version in place.

A House Ways and Means Committee spokesman could not say when the lower chamber would consider renewing TAA this year. He did say, however, that Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, is “working to find a bipartisan path forward in the House and Senate” for the program and other trade-related measures. 

Sen. Brown said Republicans need to put pressure on their own leadership to get TAA moving again.

“There still are people who are victims in all of this, and we need to help them,” Brown said. “They need to go to their party leadership and tell them we got to do this.”