Himes: American leadership on trade at home and abroad
After weeks of debate and controversy, President Barack Obama has been granted Trade Promotion Authority by bipartisan majorities in Congress, with my support. TPA opens the door for consideration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would reduce trade barriers between the United States and 11 other Pacific nations by allowing an up-or-down vote in Congress after negotiators reach an agreement. This authority is not new. It has been granted in one form or another to almost every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Connecticut is an exporting state, sending billions of dollars of goods and services to other countries. The Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metro area is the state’s largest export region. Our future prosperity lies in competing and winning in international markets, not turning our back on them.
The opportunity is huge: The nations in the TPP represent $27 trillion, or 40 percent, of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. We engage in trade with these countries now, but there are many obstacles that make this trade inefficient and expensive. For example, trade barriers virtually shut the U.S. auto industry out of Japan. Under a strong TPP, those barriers could be lifted and market share for U.S. automakers could rise substantially. Similarly, intellectual property theft in the form of rampant piracy damages the American creators of the music, movies and software that the world loves. Stronger rules and enforcement mechanisms will help American workers and hurt Asian counterfeiters.
During my consideration, I heard much concern that TPP could mean job losses in the United States. This fear is understandable. The twin forces of advancing technology and globalization have been hard on certain categories of American jobs over the last several decades. Just ask any of the 30,000 former employees of Borders Books. Too many businesses have chased low wages to places such as China, Mexico and Central America. This has happened inside and outside of trade agreements.
But lately, that dynamic has reversed as businesses have realized that our workers are far more productive than foreign workers and that clean cheap energy and proximity to the biggest consumer market in the world are huge competitive advantages. From 2010-2014, the United States saw the addition of 762,000 manufacturing jobs. This is a trend to build on and accelerate through access to foreign consumers.
I have had the opportunity to visit dozens of modern manufacturing plants and am always struck by the near universal automation and the highly skilled workforce that designs, programs and maintains 21st century production. The key today lies not in trying to rebuild the labor-intensive factory floors of the 1970s. The key is to make sure that today’s American worker is superbly trained and playing on a level playing field, where she or he will almost always win.
Importantly, the TPP also represents an opportunity to raise labor and environmental standards throughout the Pacific region. Currently, labor unions are outlawed in Vietnam. Under the TPP, they would be legalized. The transition from illegality to a robust and self-sustaining labor movement won’t happen overnight, but will happen much faster if required by the TPP. Environmental standards in the region are also inadequate, affecting local health as well as the quality and safety of the products we import. By engaging with these countries, we can use the enforcement mechanisms contained in TPP to push for improvement.
Like almost all high level negotiations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not being negotiated in public. This has made it challenging to address the fears of critics and to explain the agreement’s potential for good. However, I have personally read the current draft agreement, and there are advisory groups made up of leaders from labor organizations, environmental groups, the business community, and Congress who have access to it. More importantly, under the TPA I supported, the president will be required to make the final agreement available to the public online for 60 days before he is permitted to sign it. Congress will then debate and consider it for months. I am hopeful that, armed with Trade Promotion Authority, the president can negotiate what he has called “the most progressive trade deal in history” and one that will create high-paying export jobs and spur American innovation.
Jim Himes, a Greenwich resident, represents the Fourth Congressional District.