Trade battle brewing

House Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee are upset Democrats are stripping out funds for a study on the impact three pending trade agreements would have on U.S. agriculture exports.

The study could show the deals would be good for exports, and Republicans believe killing it would be in Democrats’ interest if they don’t want to bolster calls for the passage of the agreements.

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A spokesman for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the spending subcommittee with authorization over agriculture, said the House was ceding on the amendment to the Senate, which did not fund the study.

The House approved the $50,000 study in a 404-27 vote on an amendment to a spending bill for several agencies, including the Department of Agriculture. Democratic leaders generally voted in favor of it.

The amendment came up under a rule, however, that specified the vote was only over whether to transfer $50,000 to the Economic Research Service.

DeLauro said during the floor debate that the amendment language “does not address trade or trade agreements” and that it may need to be revisited in conference.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who offered the amendment, talked about its intent on the floor, however, and Republicans contend that lawmakers knew what they were voting for.

The study would have looked at the impact of trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. All three trade deals are stuck in Congress and appear to have little chance of moving forward this year. All three markets would likely be good for U.S. agricultural exporters, though flare-ups over U.S. beef exports have plagued the Korea deal.

In a letter to conferees, Brady said the solid House vote in favor of the study should not be ignored.

“The analysis conducted as a result of this amendment would help members of Congress as they consider whether to move forward with the pending trade agreements,” he wrote.

Dollar worries

Gold prices hit a record high Tuesday and the dollar fell on the heels of a report in a British newspaper that several countries were talking about replacing the U.S. dollar as the primary reserve currency.

The report, in The Independent newspaper, comes after increasing talk that record U.S. debt levels will make the U.S. dollar unsustainable as a reserve currency.

The annual deficit is projected to hit a record $1.6 trillion this year, and total U.S. debt is expected to rise beyond $12 trillion. Those figures could grow over the next few years, particularly with unemployment expected to remain high.

The report in The Independent was refuted by most countries mentioned in the article, but the fact that it moved markets and was reported around the world shows there are serious concerns about the dollar, said Axel Merk of Merk Investments.

“The report shows how vulnerable the market is,” he said.

Douglas Roberts, chief investment strategist for ChannelCapitalResearch.com, said Tuesday’s dramatic shifts don’t mean the dollar will be supplanted, at least in the short term.

“In the short term there’s really no option,” said Roberts, because other countries do not have a reasonable alternative to the U.S. dollar.

A battle in the sky

Business and labor are battling over the AFL-CIO’s proposal to change rules to make it easier for airline employees to form unions.

Though many airline employees are already unionized, the change would have a big impact on companies like Delta, JetBlue and Federal Express that have non-union workers.

The skirmish is just one of dozens of regulatory battles set to take place between business groups and a labor-friendly administration that were put on hold for eight months as Obama’s team was being confirmed. Now that the people are in place, business groups are bracing for fights on multiple fronts.

“We expected this all along,” said Mike Eastman, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive director of labor policy.

Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee on Monday complained that the Department of Labor was creating a new federal mandate by administering a new program for workers through state employment service employees, even though Congress did not require that the program be administered in that way.

The head lobbyist for the Chamber, Bruce Josten, on Oct. 2 criticized the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary of Labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, arguing against the nominee’s support for regulations.

Separately, the Chamber released a report last month highlighting dozens of cases that could be considered by the National Labor Relations Board, which governs most business-labor disputes.

Assuming three Obama appointees are confirmed to the board, the Chamber said the stage would be set for “sweeping policy changes” that have received scant attention compared to the congressional debate over card-check legislation.

Labor unions are ready for action, too.

“Just speaking for our section, we’re going to present a very aggressive, pro-worker agenda,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.

Wytkind’s section asked the National Mediation Board to change the rules on airline employees.

Under rules in place for decades, those who don’t vote in elections for unions representing airline and railroad employees are counted as “no” votes. That means a majority of employees at a company must vote to form a union, not simply a majority of those who vote.

Wytkind argues that this is undemocratic and that every other union election, as well as elections for public offices, only count those actually voting as yeas or nays. Three former presidents would not have been elected under today’s rules, he said.

Seven GOP senators weighed in against the AFL-CIO last week. They said changing the rules would mean two unions representing workers at Delta and Northwest, which are merging, would choose their representation under a set of rules different from six other unions’.

The Air Transport Association of America, which represents the airlines, argues the rules aren’t a meaningful impediment to unions, since they have won 65 percent of the 1,850 elections that have taken place under them.

“We believe there is no legal or policy justification to change this well-established voting process,” James May, CEO and president of the trade group, said in a statement.