— President Obama, weekly address, Aug. 20, 2011
Those were pretty tough words by the president over the weekend — “the only thing preventing us from passing these bills is the refusal by some in Congress to put country ahead of party,” referring to bills he suggests are bottled up in Congress, including free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
Not so fast, cry the Republicans: The White House has never submitted the trade bills to Congress for approval. The issue is so confusing — and Obama has been demanding immediate action for so long — that one White House spokesman actually expressed surprise this month when reporters noted the trade bills have not been submitted.
“Have we not sent them over?” asked Josh Earnest, drawing laughter from the press corps. “I mean, look, clearly the legislative mechanics are something that I’m not intimately steeped in.”
To some extent, this is a chicken-or-egg question. The two sides are so far apart on so many issues that they can’t even agree what came first, though both sides do say that passage of the free-trade deals should be a priority.
A key factor in the delay in submitting the trade pacts is something called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which was first created in 1962 to help workers and companies deal with the fallout from greater free trade. As the Congressional Research Service documented in an interesting report last month, TAA has frequently been tied to trade deals, in part to win Democratic votes for trade liberalization.
In May, the Obama administration announced that it would not seek approval of the three trade deals unless Congress agreed to restore the TAA, which had been allowed to lapse in February. What came first — the Republicans’ refusal to extend the program, citing its cost, or the administration’s decision to tie TAA to the trade deals?
Or maybe first came the huge expansion of TAA in the stimulus bill by Democrats, which made TAA a target for Republicans? Or maybe it was first the refusal of Democrats to approve the trade pacts — which date back to 2006 — in the waning days of the Bush administration?
See what we mean by chicken-or-egg? Each side can craft the narrative that it wants to make its case.
The dispute seems to be close to a resolution, largely on the administration’s terms. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced earlier this month that an agreement to allow both the trade deals and renewal of TAA to go forward. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) echoed that with his own statement: “I look forward to the House passing the FTAs, in tandem with separate consideration of TAA legislation, as soon as possible.”
“We have made abundantly clear, publicly and privately, that the House is prepared to vote on all three trade agreements and TAA extension in tandem with each other,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. “The only thing holding us up is the fact those trade bills are still sitting on the president's desk.”
The administration has indicated that Boehner’s statement is a step forward, though they are looking to pin down the details.
“The administration has been eager to send these agreements up for some time now, starting with our offer to submit the U.S.-South Korea agreement several months ago; since that time, we have been working diligently to find a path forward that satisfies concerns in Congress about the completion of all three agreements, as well as Trade Adjustment Assistance,” said Carol J. Guthrie, assistant U.S. trade representative for public affairs.
Guthrie added: “The next step is to nail down remaining specifics on a bipartisan, bicameral agreement to move forward with all three agreements and TAA in a timely fashion. We are particularly pleased with the progress announced by Senate leadership shortly before Congress left for the August recess, and look forward to working with both the Senate and House to finalize a bipartisan, bicameral agreement.”
Once submitted, the trade deals will move on an expedited track and would be subject to an up-or-down vote with no amendments.
The Pinocchio Test
The administration has clearly played a balancing act, trying to attract Democratic support without losing significant Republican backing. We’re not going to judge who is more right on the history leading up to this point, but we do think it is a highly selective recounting of that history for the president to suggest GOP lawmakers are blocking the deal because they are putting party before country. There is actually strong support for these agreements within the Republican Party — just like there is strong support for trade adjustment legislation among Democrats.
There may be a philosophical dispute over aid for companies harmed by free trade, but the administration in the end is responsible for making passage of TAA a condition for submitting the trade deals. Moreover, Obama leaves the distinct impression that Congress is sitting on the bills, when in fact they have not yet been officially submitted for consideration.
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