Jun 24, 2015 - 4:30pm

Lessons from the Trade Debate

Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


Photo Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

It isn’t every day Congress enacts major legislation on a bipartisan basis. But in approving Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) this week, that’s exactly what happened: A growth-promoting, job-creating bill of real consequence is headed to the president’s desk. American leadership has been reaffirmed.

What can we learn from this?

Remember, first, that approving TPA is always difficult. It’s a process vote that provides no immediate benefit, but without it the United States simply cannot enter into new market-opening trade agreements. TPA was approved in 2002 by a narrow two-vote margin in the House. It was defeated in 1998.

By enacting TPA, Congress has demonstrated a willingness to set aside partisanship and pursue the national interest. In fact, the degree of collaboration between President Obama, Republican leaders in Congress, and a brave band of congressional Democrats as they worked to pass this bill was unprecedented.

Trust, a quality often in short supply in Washington, created a path forward. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out, “The American people didn’t send us here to sulk, but to work through tough problems.” It would require “trusting each other to get there,” he said.

The fierce opposition of organized labor and some Democrats sapped trust. Pro-trade Democrats — and more than a few pro-trade Republicans — had insisted that Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) be approved in tandem with TPA. But when the TAA portion of the trade bill was taken hostage in the House, it became necessary to sever the TPA/TAA tie.

In the end on Tuesday, 62 senators supported TPA (two supporters were absent for the cloture vote), and in the House 28 Democrats joined four-fifths of the Republican conference to pass the bill.

All shared a commitment to principle: They agreed that America cannot disengage from global affairs, economic or otherwise. Our standard of living and our standing in the world are at stake.

Alongside the cheers, do some deserve jeers? It will take time to properly assess the role of the unions, which fought TPA ferociously.

According to press accounts, many Democrats were angered by organized labor’s “scorched-earth tactics” and “scathing TV ads and threats of primary challengers.” These efforts left “ill will — even among lawmakers who typically consider themselves friends of labor — that is unlikely to subside soon,” Politico reported. Despite those efforts, the House and Senate cast repeated votes to approve TPA.

The stance of organized labor is hard to fathom. Many union members depend on trade for their livelihood: Think of machinists in the export-dependent aerospace sector, or longshoremen whose work is entirely depending on trade.

Organized labor represents just 6.6% of private sector workers in America, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And as David Wessel observed in The Wall Street Journal: “Less than 10% of all the workers that U.S. unions represent today are in manufacturing or agriculture, the industries most exposed to harm from globalization.”

The unions now have an opportunity to reassess not only their costly tactics but their misguided strategy. A wide range of U.S. manufacturing and services industries depend on exports, and U.S. trade agreements have brought them significant benefits. Labor should take a closer look at the potential benefits of trade agreements.

From the business and agriculture community, near universal support played an important role. Members of Congress heard from thousands of small businesses and entrepreneurs, major exporters with operations across the nation, and firms from every sector — manufacturers, services providers and agriculture.

On their behalf, the Chamber is grateful to the senators and representatives who voted for TPA. We look forward to working with you and others in Congress as we seek to harness trade to drive growth and job creation at home.

About the Author

About the Author

Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of International Affairs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, drives the global business strategy of the organization.