WASHINGTON — Sen. Joseph Lieberman says three trade deals pending in Congress could do more to create jobs than anything else lawmakers are debating right now. Sen. Richard Blumenthal says they could undermine workers’ rights, environmental protections, and America’s strained manufacturers.

Those two divergent views help to explain why the three agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea are mired in the legislative muck right now.

Last week, a Senate hearing on the trade pacts ended in chaos. GOP lawmakers refused to attend because majority Democrats had planned to attach an assistance package for workers who are displaced by foreign trade deals and the global competition they bring.

Today in the House, the Ways and Means Committee plans to hold a mark-up on the pacts, and it’s unclear whether that session will go more smoothly. The panel’s Republican majority plans to move the trade deals forward without the worker assistance provisions, a move sure to enrage Democrats.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who sits on the Ways and Means, is among those who’ve vowed to “actively oppose” the Colombian trade deal in particular. The Colombian agreement is the most controversial of the three, but they’re all sparking a political fight.

The three deals were negotiated separately, but they would do essentially the same thing: eliminate tariffs on goods and services sold between the U.S. and South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.

“I’m strongly for them,” said Lieberman, a Connecticut independent. “To be a bit parochial, Connecticut is a very big exporting state, so the more we promote trade the more it creates jobs in our state.” Indeed, Lieberman argued that “of all the things we’re talking about doing here to create jobs… these three trade agreements would do more than anything else I’ve heard discussed.”

Blumenthal, by contrast, said the Panama and Colombia pacts are “unacceptable to me,” arguing that they don’t do enough to protect workers or the environment, let alone U.S. firms trying to compete in a global marketplace. He said the deal with South Korea is not as problematic, but he remains deeply skeptical about its merits.

“There are a number of issues that need to be addressed,” Blumenthal said. “The first is assistance to workers, which right now is still in question. That would be a sort of threshold deal-breaker for me even to consider the South Korea pact.”

The worker assistance program is known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), created in 1974 to help workers who are laid off because of increased foreign imports. The program provides re-training assistance and other services to help displaced workers develop new skills and find new jobs.

Trade has long been a divisive political issue, and a particularly tough one for Democrats. Republicans generally support free trade deals, which are a major objective for big business interests that usually align more with the GOP. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has made passage of these three deals a top political priority this year, and the lobby group is pressing Republicans to back down from their opposition to the TAA funding.

The Chamber has set up a sophisticated website that shows the economic benefits of exports by state and congressional district. There’s Ahlstrom Nonwovens, for example, whose Windsor Locks facility exports $93,000 worth of toilet paper to Colombia each year. According to the chamber site, it’s one of 243 exporting companies in Connecticut, supporting more than 52,000 jobs in the state.

Democrats, meanwhile, have generally been more skeptical of free trade deals, as have their political allies, big labor unions. The AFL-CIO is pushing to kill the three agreements, which they say will send more American jobs overseas. Richard Trumka, the labor federation’s president, said trade pacts like NAFTA have cost the U.S. an estimated 700,000 jobs and have been “a miserable failure for working people.”

The three trade deals now pending in Congress were negotiated by former Republican President George W. Bush. But his administration failed to win passage of them before he left office.

Now, the Obama Administration is leading the charge, saying the deals would be a major boon to the economy. The U.S. International Trade Commission says the South Korea agreement could generate more than $10 billion in additional exports of U.S.-made products. At the same time, officials acknowledge that some American workers will lose their jobs because of new imports from abroad.

In June, the White House struck a deal with two congressional leaders-the respective chairmen of the House and Senate trade committees–to include funding for the TAA program as a condition of congressional approval.

But rank-and-file Republicans have balked at that agreement, calling the worker assistance an expensive and unjustified welfare program. And many Democrats didn’t like the trade deals to begin with, whether or not they included the TAA money.

“We show up at these negotiations having already lost,” said Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, because the U.S. does so little to support its domestic manufacturing base.

“We refuse to target taxpayer dollars to domestic procurement. We refuse to take on countries like China that don’t play by the rules. And we don’t do the same things other countries do to support their domestic industries,” Murphy said. “It’s going to be nearly impossible for me to support any of these free trade agreement so long as this country neglects to put into place a comprehensive industrial policy.”

The Colombia pact is garnering particularly stiff opposition among Democrats because of that country’s internal strife and repression, particularly against labor union activists. To address that issue, the White House negotiated a special “action plan” to improve workers rights in Colombia. But that plan hasn’t been included in the implementing language being considered by the House GOP.

Larson said the failure to attach that side deal doesn’t make economic or moral sense.

“The more the people of Colombia improve their lot, the more demand there will be for American goods and services,” he said in a statement last week.  “It would be irresponsible for the United States to now backpedal and move forward without inclusion of the Action Plan in the implementing language.”

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, who lived in Colombia when he was growing up, said he hasn’t decided how he’s going to vote on these trade deals. But, he said, “It’s not immediately obvious to me that disengaging is a better way” of addressing the human rights issues in Colombia than “engaging” through the new trade agreement.

Lieberman said he hopes Republicans will not block the trade agreements over the worker assistance funding, which he sees as a key element of free trade. But, he said, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker. He noted that Colombia is actively seeking increased trade with China.

“We’re going to lose markets in Colombia for American made goods that the Chinese will be selling to, because we’re being really more demanding than we need to be,” he said. “We’ve brought the Colombians a long way on the labor issues, and the important thing now is to think about jobs for Americans.”

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