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Sherrod Brown on slow-tracking Obama’s trade agenda

(Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)

If there's one thing President Obama and a lot of Congressional Republicans agree on - and really, it might just be the one thing - it's the idea that Congress should give the president renewed powers to negotiate trade agreements with other countries. But Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a longtime critic of American trade policy, says Obama shouldn't get that authority unconditionally. In order to pass the so-called "fast-track" authority, Brown wants Congress to force the administration to strengthen enforcement of trade rules already on the books, to step up infrastructure spending and training programs for workers displaced by outsourcing and to retaliate against China for depressing the value of its currency. He'll outline that agenda in a speech on Friday morning, but he discussed it with Wonkblog on Thursday. The transcript is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jim Tankersley: The White House wants renewed "fast-track" trade negotiation authority. You have some conditions you’d like to attach to that?

Sherrod Brown: It’s pretty interesting that Republicans, anything that has Obama’s name on it, they oppose, but this they’re willing to give huge power to the White House – in terms of negotiation authority; in terms of allowing them to do it in secret, which is what much of these negotiations have been about; in terms of giving away, in the Senate, the process of holds and filibusters and 60 votes and all that, timelines, are all just punted away to the administration.

That doesn’t work for our country. Every trade agreement means a bigger and bigger trade deficit, more and more lost jobs. You know, ‘it’s not working, let’s do more of it’ clearly doesn’t work for our country. So we (should) look back to another era, 25 years ago, job anxiety and job loss and a fear of an Asian country. In 1988 that country was Japan. And today there’s that concern about China. What they did in 1988 was look to give the president negotiating authority but protect and prepare workers.

If we do that right, and give those tools, then it will build a foundation for a lot broader support for trade, and a lot broader prosperity for what that trade will bring.

JT: But isn’t fast-track trade authority the rare example of bipartisan cooperation right now – something that might actually happen?

SB: I’ve talked to a lot of my colleagues who like the idea of broadening the whole trade agenda. You don’t just give the president authority to negotiate a trade agreement, you say, you’ve also got to consider the following four or five things: currency, infrastructure, trade enforcement, job training in a more significant way than (the current aid for some displaced workers) trade-adjustment assistance. That alone has much broader support.

People around here are recognizing that trade only works for us with a different set of rules. I don’t think the Senate will allow the Obama administration to move forward on trade, on this trade agenda, until they address this issue of currency. Because it’s costing us jobs.

JT: Why hasn’t the administration taken action against China for currency manipulation?

SB: For whatever reason, administrations in America - foreign countries seem to practice trade in their national interests, and administrations in this country, from both parties, tend to practice trade according to some economic textbook that’s 20 years out of date. You explain it to me. I don’t know why administrations talk one way about China during elections and then when they take office – and this happens in both parties – they lose interest in taking action against a country that clearly is cheating.

There’s no question this would pass the House if it makes it to a vote in the House. The only question is if Boehner will schedule it.

JT: Does that mean you’d filibuster a trade promotion bill if it doesn’t include a currency provision?

SB: It means that we’re going to do what we have to do to get the issue of currency addressed, and the widening of the issue of trade generally – the widening of scope, not just the issue – before we move forward on fast-track.

JT: And if that widening is included?

SB: I could support a fast-track bill that really does change the terms of trade.