A Trade Promotion Authority bill passed the U.S. Senate 62-37 Friday night, with 48 Republicans and 14 Democrats voting for the measure. The bill now heads to the U.S. House where it faces an uncertain future. The measure gives Congress the ability to vote up and down major international trade agreements negotiated by the White House but strips Congress of the ability to amend or filibuster such agreements. Fast track authority is designed to make it easier to push through trade agreements, and the bill was seen as a necessary step towards approving the controversial twelve nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.
President Obama favors the agreement, as do a majority of Senate Republicans. However, liberal pro-labor Senators like Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have argued that the bill will make it easier for corporations to avoid worker protections and to lower wages by moving jobs overseas.
Organized labor has argued that fast track authority undermines American workers. The AFL-CIO issued a recent statement, that read:
We’ve seen the devastating cost of bad trade deals over the years, so we know that fast track trade promotion authority is not the way to ensure that the American public receives the full and thorough debate on the vast implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In stark contrast to the AFL-CIO’s assessment, President Obama described the agreement in glowing terms, stating:
Today’s bipartisan Senate vote is an important step toward ensuring the United States can negotiate and enforce strong, high-standards trade agreements. If done right, these agreements are vital to expanding opportunities for the middle class, leveling the playing field for American workers, and establishing rules for the global economy that help our businesses grow and hire by selling goods made in America to the rest of the world.
President Obama’s rosy optimism sounded hauntingly similar to Bill Clinton’s positive appraisals for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before he pushed it through Congress with bi-partisan support in the 1990s. However, a briefing paper by Robert E. Scott at the Economic Policy Institute noted that the optimistic predictions of President Clinton and pro-NAFTA economists never came to pass.
In his publication, “Heading South: U.S.-Mexico trade and job displacement after NAFTA“, Scott estimated that by the year 2010, U.S. trade deficits with Mexico totaled over 97 billion dollars and he estimated that the negative effects of NAFTA had displaced over 680,000 U.S. jobs. Trade agreements that encourage more imports and fewer exports tend to displace domestic workers and tighten an already tough job market while pushing manufacturing jobs out of the country where employers can exploit cheaper labor.
Unfortunately, President Obama seems to be following the path taken by former President Clinton, by aligning with multinational corporations and “free trade” Republicans rather than with organized labor. Multinational corporations who exploit cheap labor overseas, such as the Nike shoe company, will benefit from the agreement. Meanwhile, American manufacturing jobs could continue to shrink, as domestic plants find themselves unable to compete with companies who pay lower wages overseas.
The U.S. House has an opportunity to reject the bill, but given the bill’s popularity with Republican Senators, it is difficult to envision the GOP-controlled House defeating the bill. That difficulty is compounded because some Democrats are also likely to back the President in supporting the bill.
Still, the individual votes could be unpredictable. In the Senate, 48 of 54 Republican Senators voted YES. Mike Enzi of Wyoming did not vote. Of the five Republicans who voted no, Susan Collins of Maine is traditionally regarded as a moderate, but the other four are hard-line conservatives, which means the more conservative GOP House could also offer up some surprise votes. Republican Senators Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), Jeff Sessions (AL) and Richard Shelby (AL) were the four conservatives who voted against fast track trade authority.
30 Democrats opposed the measure, along with the two Independent Senators who caucus with the Democrats, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. 14 Democrats backed the proposal. Those 14 Democrats were Michael Bennet (CO), Maria Cantwell (WA), Ben Cardin (MD), Tom Carper (DE), Chris Coons (DE), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Tim Kaine (VA), Claire McCaskill (MO), Patty Murray (WA), Bill Nelson (FL), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Mark Warner (VA) and Ron Wyden (OR).
While the fast track agreement appears to be a raw deal for American workers, there is the possibility that even if it passes, President Obama will negotiate good faith agreements with other nations, that safeguard worker protections and do not undermine American workers. Some of the more liberal Senators who voted to permit fast track authority may be operating under that assumption. However, that authority will likely be extended to future presidents as well, and there is no guarantee that fast track authority, once passed, will not empower the next Republican president to negotiate a terrible deal for American workers.
The Senators should have voted this bill down. Now the responsibility for protecting American jobs from future bad trade deals has been passed into the hands of the U.S. House. Sadly, it is hard to feel optimistic about the fate of the American worker, if he or she is now depending upon John Boehner’s Republican-controlled House to do the right thing.