THE DEVASTATING impact of the Great Recession lingers on, as the unexpectedly poor Labor Department report on December job growth showed. The unemployment rate shrank three-tenths of a percent, to 6.7 percent, but mostly because 347,000 working-age people left the labor force altogether, while a mere 74,000 got hired. It doesn’t help matters that a disproportionate number of the jobless are long-term unemployed — and that Republicans are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits for them on Capitol Hill.
Fortunately, though, a bipartisan group in Congress is pressing ahead with at least one measure that could help the U.S. economy grow and create employment: legislation to strengthen President Obama’s hand in negotiations for expanded free trade with Europe and the Pacific Rim.
We refer to a proposal unveiled Thursday by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman and ranking member of the Finance Committee, respectively. It would renew the “fast-track” procedures under which the House and Senate agree to vote on free-trade agreements without amendments or filibusters. Those procedures were last approved in 2002 and lapsed in 2007. By expediting congressional consideration, they streamlined past trade negotiations under both Republican and Democratic presidents, because U.S. trading partners knew that Congress couldn’t undo any deal they might strike with the executive branch.
In return for ceding some legislative prerogatives, Congress appropriately demands a say in setting negotiating objectives, as well as a measure of enhanced oversight of the talks as they proceed. Congressional skepticism toward free trade, always strong among Rust Belt Democrats, has arguably grown in the 12 years since the last fast-track bill passed, due to the recession — and to the rise of the tea party, with its anxiety about ceding U.S. sovereignty.
Accordingly, the newly proposed bill adds such concerns as addressing trading partners’ currency manipulation to the formal list of U.S. negotiating objectives, and it creates House and Senate advisory groups to monitor and consult on the talks regularly. It also incorporates the same approach to meeting core labor and environmental standards that satisfied Congress when it was considering recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Colombia. Yet the proposal does all of this without placing unduly binding limits on U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman’s latitude to cut the two deals he is pursuing separately with the European Union and 11 Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan.
Of course, opponents of the bill see this flexibility as a bug, not a feature; the AFL-CIO has denounced it, and Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) says he may introduce a rival bill. The Obama administration sounded a more favorable note; it will probably have to depend on mostly Republican votes to pass the legislation. In return, the GOP is demanding that the president himself advocate fast track aggressively. It’s not an unreasonable request. Mr. Obama could start by giving the issue a prominent mention in his State of the Union address.