During President Obama's Twitter town hall last week, there was one particularly compelling tweet from the House Ways and Means Committee: "#AskObama Why are you holding up the 3 bipartisan trade agreements that would create 250K US Jobs?"
The three trade agreements are with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. The committee cites the International Trade Commission when saying the agreements could create 250,000 U.S. jobs, a desired commodity in an economy with 9.2 percent unemployment. Fact sheets put out by the GOP show that the Colombia agreement alone is expected to add a net gain of $2.5 billion to U.S. GDP, and the South Korea agreement could add $10.1 billion. Committee literature also stresses the importance of getting the deals done this summer, because that is when the United States' foreign competitors' agreements with these countries begin. A 2010 report from the Ways and Means Committee and the Committee on Agriculture demonstrated that the lack of an agreement with Colombia was already playing a role in "a severe downturn in U.S. exports."
So what's the holdup?
Oddly enough, there's been difficulty over passing the job-creating trade agreements in the name of the unemployed -- the administration and Democrats don't want to pass the agreements without attaching a reauthorization of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, a decades old program to help the unemployed affected by "global competition." The program got a big boost from Congress in 2009, when, the AP reports, Congress expanded the program as part of the economic stimulus.
Rep. David Camp (R-Mich.), as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been negotiating a trimmed-down version of the program. Instead of costing approximately $700 million per year for the next 5 years, the new version would cost $900 million over three years and end the program completely after 2014. One of the provisions is to reduce the time frame of income support, which in 2009 was at 156 weeks. The new version whould shorten it to 117 weeks with the potential for 13 more if the applicant meets certain requirements. The committee also says the deal offsets any new spending.
It's not the first time around for this issue, either. President Bush actually presented the Colombia trade agreements, but then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi allowed it to fall by the wayside.
Getting the trade agreements ratified follows an interesting procedural process -- after the trade agreements are negotiated by the administration (with Congress consulting), the Senate and House start drafting the bills. The committee will go through hearings, but they will do a "non-markup" on the bills to hash out differences, since the bills can't be amended once they are submitted to Congress. The administration then sends Congress the bill, agreements, and accompanying documents. The bill are introduced in the legislative bodies--no amendments allowed. There's also a time limit on the bills.
The House versions right now do not include a TAA reauthorization, but that is no guarantee that the administration will honor that in its final submission. The legislation went through "non-markups" last week, so the final version from the administration is the next step.