July 15, 2011

The U.S. economy needs swift approval of the pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Yet a week after the release of a disappointing employment report, procedural disagreement over a program that has provided benefits to American workers for almost 50 years is stalling the entire trade agenda.

Deficit reduction is an urgent task requiring intense scrutiny of spending measures. But it is counterproductive to delay long-overdue trade agreements that finally have a chance of passing over a relatively inexpensive assistance program designed to smooth out the rougher edges of the global economy.

Republicans have argued in the debt-ceiling negotiations that economic growth, rather than higher taxes, is key to raising revenue. At the same time, they understand that the United States will not achieve such growth without the benefits of international trade. Given political realities, the cost-benefit analysis should be clear: better to incur the fiscal cost of renewing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program than to lose the much greater benefits of free trade with three important trading partners.

This is not to say that Republicans should support TAA as a mere quid pro quo for the Obama administration’s submission of the trade pacts to Congress. The program deserves renewal on its merits. Even passionate free-traders recognize that lowering tariff barriers isn’t a boon for all workers in all sectors. For this reason, TAA helps displaced workers train for jobs in businesses that can compete with rising imports.

In fact, TAA is a far better way to defend workers from trade-related disruptions than protective tariffs or quotas. Little wonder that the program has been in existence since 1962 and has been repeatedly renewed with bipartisan support, most recently only two years ago. Ironically, some of the same members of Congress who criticize TAA’s inclusion in the South Korea bill today voted for reauthorization of TAA in the NAFTA legislation in 1993.

The controversy over these trade bills would be merely puzzling if it weren’t so damaging to our nation’s economic interests. The longer the United States delays, the larger market share U.S. producers lose as global competitors fill the void. Take Colombia, a crucial market and a valuable ally in a strategically important region. While U.S. exporters continue to face high tariffs and declining market share, Argentina and Brazil are already taking the market from U.S. agricultural producers, and a Colombian free-trade deal with Canada will come online in barely a month.

Both the administration and congressional Republicans profess an appropriate sense of urgency regarding passage of the trade agreements. To reach that goal by the August recess, they must end the partisan wrangling over TAA, which is a dispute over process, not substance.

Compromise is an inherent part of governing in a representative democracy. Even in today’s contentious political environment, we must depend on our leaders to find common ground and, in this case, quickly resolve an impasse that threatens to undermine our engagement with the world economy. The reward would be the creation of new jobs and opportunities for workers and businesses across the country.

John D. Negroponte, a deputy secretary of state and director of national intelligence in the George W. Bush administration, is chairman of the Council of the Americas. Mack McLarty, a former special envoy for the Americas and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, is president of McLarty Associates. Jim Jones, a Democratic former U.S. representative from Oklahoma, was White House appointments secretary in the Johnson administration. Rob Mosbacher Jr., the president of Mosbacher Energy, was president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation during the George W. Bush administration. All are members of the Council of the Americas’ trade advisory group.