Free trade has fallen on hard times in America. With commentators such as CNN's Lou Dobbs promoting protectionism and liberal politicians pandering to Big Labor, the tide has clearly turned.
The U.S. has enjoyed years of economic growth resulting from liberalized trade. Since the late 1990s, gross domestic product has increased nearly 40 percent, and jobs have grown by 13 percent. Now, however, repeated attacks on free trade -- mostly from liberal politicians, but some from conservative quarters as well -- threaten significant economic damage.
At a time when the world is becoming smaller every day, it seems only logical to tear down walls rather than build new ones. But legislation making its way through Congress would erect new barriers, costing the U.S. government millions and doing American workers no favors.
The Trade and Globalization Assistance Act was supposed to be a modest patch to the Trade Adjustment Assistance job-training program administered by the Department of Labor since 1962. This program helps workers who wind up losing their jobs due to trade pacts get the training they need to find new jobs. But thanks in part to the clout of unions, House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) has turned the measure into a boon for Big Labor and an assault on free trade. The legislation prompted a strongly worded veto threat from the White House, citing both the high cost and vast scope of the bill as reasons for rejecting the measure.
Doubtless the administration is doubly disappointed with the current bill because it was originally intended to renew the president's Trade Promotion Authority (which expired June 30) in return for the modest “patch.” However the TPA renewal is no longer in the mix. In its stead are provisions that help the administration advance only one trade deal: the Peru Free Trade Agreement. The House approved that pact on Thursday, 285-132. But similar deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea are languishing without any sign they'll win congressional approval.
How did the administration get stuck with such a bad deal? Growing hostility toward free trade has prompted many Democrats who espoused trade liberalization during the Clinton administration to question whether deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are good for the United States.