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John Feehery: Reid tips balance on trade

Greg Nash

It was typical Harry Reid: blunt, to the point and unambiguous. 

“Everyone knows how I feel about this. ... The White House knows. Everyone would be well-advised to not push this right now.”

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The “this” is trade promotion authority. 

And with that unadorned statement, the Democratic Senate majority leader killed the president’s most important job-creating initiative. 

Earlier in the year, the Commerce Department announced that the United States exported a record $194.9 billion in goods and services in November 2013.

The New York Times reported last week that “exports also surged while imports increased only slightly, making trade the second biggest contributor to growth after consumer spending.”

This is what the president said about trade in his State of the Union address last week: “When 98 percent of our exporters are small businesses, new  trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create even more jobs. We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets to new goods stamped ‘Made in the USA.’ ”

Last year, Gallup reported, “Americans now hold a much more positive view of foreign trade than they have in recent years. Fifty-seven percent view trade as ‘an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports,’ while 35% see it as ‘a threat to the economy from foreign imports.’ During the prior two years, Americans were evenly divided in their opinions about trade.”

Despite this switch in public sentiment, and despite the clear benefits to economic growth and to job creation, the Senate majority leader has decided to not give President Obama the benefit of the doubt on negotiating trade agreements on behalf of the American people.

Trade promotion authority (TPA) is a legislative device that gives the executive branch permission to negotiate trade agreement with foreign governments without too much congressional interference. 

Foreign governments will not enter into negotiations with the United States, unless the Congress gives the president this permission because it is impossible to negotiate with 535 different entities. 

TPA basically fast-tracks whatever agreement is reached between the Obama administration and these foreign governments to an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate, assuring negotiators on both sides a speedy resolution. 

The administration has tentatively eyed negotiations with Europe and with 12 Pacific Rim countries as the next step in lowering trade barriers to American products worldwide. 

Most, if not all, of these countries have higher barriers to our products than we have to theirs. Most of these countries make it more difficult for our businesses to do business in their country than it is for their businesses to do business here. 

Trade agreements are specifically good for our farmers, our big manufacturers (specifically of planes, trains and automobiles), our consumer products makers and for energy producers (we are now a net energy exporter). 

In all fairness to Reid, he has never liked free trade and has usually voted against free-trade agreements. 

But if we are going to deal with long-term unemployment in this country, if we are going to put more people to work, if we are going to give America a raise (as the president is fond of saying), we are going to have to increase trade with other countries. We are going to have to sell more of our stuff, made here, in other places. 

We can’t rely solely on American consumers to keep our economy growing. We have to tap into the unfulfilled market that exists elsewhere. 

The bottom line is that Reid, the Senate majority leader and the man who first picked Barack Obama to be his candidate for president and who helped him to attain the highest office in the land, doesn’t trust him to look out for the best interests of the American people in trade negotiations. 

How can you expect Republicans to trust this president if his No. 1 ally in the Senate won’t? 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.