President Barack Obama wants Congress to give him authority to negotiate two major "fast track" free trade agreements, but Democrats in the House and Senate (along with some Republicans) are balking both at the agreements, and the idea of expediting approval of them.
The two agreements are the Trans--Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), which would affect trade among 12 countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean; and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (TTIP), between the United States and 24 members of the European Union.
Next week, Obama is scheduled to meet with the leaders of Canada and Mexico about the Pacific agreement. The TPP would also include Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. It could add other countries, including China, in the future.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently said the TPP would generate $130 billion in "additional exports a year" from the U.S. "Each billion dollars in additional trade means 4,000 to 5,000 additional jobs in this country," McDonough said.
But Robert E. Scott, an economist with the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, believes those figures are very misleading.
"Projected increased trade by itself tells you nothing about employment impacts: Exports support U.S. jobs, but imports destroy them," Scott wrote earlier this month on the EPI website, in an article headlined "White House Wrong on Fast Track."
Obama is pursing the "fast track" trade agreements despite opposition from leading members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D--Calif.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said on Thursday that TPP "would threaten American jobs and rewrite laws governing our food safety, access to medicine and intellectual property rights. Yet the negotiations have been shrouded in secrecy. Special access has been given to corporate lobbyists, but the American people and members of Congress have been shut out."
Calling the TPP "NAFTA on Steroids," the Communications Workers of America believes it "is poised to become the largest free trade agreement ever."
The countries involved generate 38 percent of the world's global economic activity.
"The TPP has been shrouded in secrecy. All journalists and public interest groups, and the majority of Congress have been denied effective access to the negotiating texts," CWA stated.
Positive assessments of the potential impact of TTP, Scott argues, neglect recent increases in the U.S. trade deficit generated by trade with those countries. Last year, that deficit was $260 billion.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), passed under President Bill Clinton in 1994, altered previously balanced trade with Mexico and Canada into trade deficits.
Workers in industries such as steel, which must compete against imports, are typically higher than wages paid to American workers in industries whose products are exported.
Pressured by cheap labor in foreign nations, more and more companies, especially in textile manufacturing, have moved their operations offshore. Levi Strauss, for example, closed all its U.S. plants between 1999 and 2003.
Between 2001 and 2011, Scott writes, our trade with China generated 538,000 new jobs. But it eliminated 3.3 million jobs -- six times as many jobs as were created.
The late Sen. Robert, C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was an outspoken opponent of "free trade" agreements.
"NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and almost every single trade agreement in front of the U.S. Congress shifts power dramatically from elected governments to private interests," Byrd said in 2004.
Byrd criticized giving any president "fast-track" negotiating powers that prevents senators and the public from asking questions about trade agreements.
NAFTA and WTO, Byrd frequently pointed out, eliminated thousands of jobs in West Virginia, especially higher-paying jobs in steel, aluminum and shoe manufacturing.
The CWA stated: "The U.S. Constitution gives Congress exclusive authority to set U.S. trade policy and gives the executive branch authority to conduct international negotiations. This smart check and balance means the president cannot negotiate trade deals -- unless Congress gives authority to do so."
The CWA also pointed out TPP will help authoritarian governments, like the one in Vietnam, that "systematically violate human rights."
Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said, "We tend to be free traders. In West Virginia, where we are doing so much business with the Asian rim countries, we get even more interested in all free trade agreements that include Asia and the Pacific rim.
"Business people tend to lean toward supporting open trade. Trade tends to be good for all the parties involved. That's why people trade. The buyer wants the product and the seller wants the opportunity to sell. We therefore tend to support trade agreements that lower trade barriers and typically lead to increased economic activity."
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "I believe in free trade as long as it is fair trade.
"Many administrations - both Republican and Democratic - are quick to make grand promises about so-called free trade agreements, and not until after the fact do we know their tragic costs - factories shutting down, jobs moving overseas, unsustainable trade imbalances, and lower wages and benefits for American workers.
"Currently, the President and his administration are negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership.... At the same time, there is talk of reviving so-called Trade Promotion Authority, or 'fast track' authority, which authorizes the president to negotiate trade agreements that would be considered by Congress under procedures that prohibit amendments and limit debate.
"I have grave concerns about both of these measures," Rahall said.
In December, Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., were among 22 senators who signed a letter to Obama voicing specific concerns about the TPP.
"To date, I have voted against every trade agreement that has come to a vote on the Senate floor because these arrangements continue to sacrifice good-paying American jobs, especially in the manufacturing sector," Manchin said Friday. "We must find new ways to export American products to emerging markets where the demand for high-quality manufactured goods and services is growing.