Congress is about to give President Obama the authority to sign trade agreements that lawmakers will be able to vote up or down but not amend. Now, it is up to the administration to reach deals with other nations that live up to the high standards on labor rights, environmental protection, access to medicines and other issues that Mr. Obama has said he supports.
[Reposted from The New York Times | NYT Editorial Board | June 24, 2015]
On Tuesday, the Senate narrowly voted to close debate on a bill that would clear the way for Mr. Obama to conclude two big trade deals — the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 countries, including Australia, Japan and Vietnam; and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. The House approved the bill last week and the Senate is expected to approve it on Wednesday.
The passage of this bill — primarily with Republican votes — will be a big victory for Mr. Obama, who has said trading partners will not put forward their best offers in negotiations if they know Congress can amend any agreements. He has made the case that in addition to increasing trade and bolstering the economy, these deals are strategically important because they will strengthen American ties with Asian, European and Latin American nations.
Labor unions, environmental groups and most Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill. They are worried that the deals the administration is negotiating will hurt American workers, make it harder for people in poor nations to buy generic drugs, lead to environmental degradation and provide outsized benefits to big corporations that will not necessarily be shared by workers.
Mr. Obama has dismissed critics of his trade agenda like Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, saying their concerns are misplaced and hypothetical. Because trade agreements are understandably secret while they are being negotiated, it is hard to determine who is right. But now the burden of proof will rest squarely on the shoulders of the president and his trade representative, Michael Froman.
To secure broad and bipartisan support for trade agreements, the administration needs to reach deals that address the legitimate concerns raised by many Democrats. The deals must contain strong and enforceable provisions on workers’ rights and the environment. They should bar, or at least strongly discourage, countries from manipulating their currencies to bolster exports at the expense of businesses in other countries. And the deals must not contain overreaching investor protection clauses that allow foreign businesses to file frivolous and abusive arbitration claims against governments by contending they were hurt by laws and regulations. Philip Morris Asia, for example, has used investor provisions in other treaties to challenge tobacco policies in Australia.
Congress needs to do more, too. The trade bill that is expected to pass does not reauthorize the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides extended jobless benefits and training to workers hurt by international trade. Republican leaders in the Senate and the House must keep their promise to hold votes on a bill that renews the program and contains other important measures, like extending trade preferences for African countries. It is vital that lawmakers protect American workers hurt by globalization at a time when the United States is negotiating treaties that will increase international trade.
As a candidate in his first presidential race, Mr. Obama was critical of trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement. He needs to show that he can strike better agreements that benefit the economy, raise labor and environmental standards and strengthen American relations with other countries.