Senators get creative to protect industries in trade debate

AP News
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Posted: May 20, 2015 4:30 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — In Congress' roiling debate over trade, one senator calls his efforts to protect the U.S. catfish industry a matter of averting "the dangers of exposure to foreign agriculture drugs."

Another senator, trying to help Michigan's auto making industry, talks chiefly about Japan's alleged "currency manipulation."

Whenever trade laws are rewritten, protected industries fight to hold the line, while others seek new advantages. They rarely spell it out that plainly, lest they be accused of seeking special protections.

But others are happy to do it for them.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., calls the catfish industry's position "one of the most brazen and reckless and protectionist programs that I have encountered." His effort to end it is among several proposed trade amendments awaiting Senate action this week.

At issue is a long-delayed law intended to shift catfish inspections from the Food and Drug Administration to the Agriculture Department. Supporters, including Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, say consumer safety is at stake.

But McCain and other critics say the real motive is to raise a new and higher hurdle to catfish imports from other nations, mainly Vietnam. The FDA is perfectly capable of inspecting imported catfish, McCain says, and there's no need to expand the federal government to duplicate the job it's done for years.

Cochran said in a Senate speech that shifting catfish inspections to the USDA "has nothing to do with trade," and is only "about the health and safety of American consumers."

But others note that Mississippi is the nation's top catfish producer, and Cochran has a long history of promoting the industry.

Meanwhile, senators from the nation's two biggest auto-making states — Michigan and Ohio — are pushing a crackdown on "currency manipulation" in Japan and elsewhere. Countries that keep their currency artificially low can boost exports by making them more affordable to foreigners.

Japan denies manipulating its currency, although few U.S. cars are sold there. The Obama administration is warning Congress not to impose currency regulations.

It says Japan and other trading partners "will not join a trade agreement that includes enforceable currency provisions" because the provisions could "block their central banks from applying appropriate monetary tools to maintain economic stability."

Moreover, the administration says, new currency crackdowns could invite unwanted international scrutiny of the Federal Reserve's steps to help the U.S. economy recover from the deep recession of 2008.

Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan doesn't buy it. The Fed's actions can withstand inspections, she says, and Japan has nothing to fear if it doesn't manipulate its currency.

But Japan does keep its currency artificially low, Stabenow said this week, and it's "the mother of all trade barriers."

"According to Ford, the weak yen gives Japanese automakers an added $6,000 in profit on the average car," Stabenow said.

The American Automotive Policy Council says Stabenow's currency proposal is "vital to American jobs, American manufacturing and American exports."

These debates over catfish, currency and cars are among components of the debate over granting "fast track" negotiating authority to President Barack Obama. The authority, which previous presidents have had, would let the administration present trade proposals that Congress can ratify or reject, but not change.

Obama says negotiators from the United States and 11 other nations can't finish the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership without the assurance of fast track protections.

In an unusual political alliance, Obama and most Republican lawmakers support fast track and free-trade agreements, and most Democrats oppose them.

The pro-trade forces said Wednesday they weren't sure they have the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate to proceed to a full debate on the fast track bill and its amendments.

Opponents are attacking the bill from multiple angles, including claims that trade deals cost U.S. jobs. The latest hurdle is a bipartisan insistence that the Senate first deal with reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank before its June 30 deadline.

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Twitter: @cbabington