Shadow Government

Just who is putting party before country on trade?

The Spanish equivalent of chutzpah is "sin vergüenza." It’s a phrase that comes to mind reading the transcript of President Obama’s recent weekly address on "Getting America Back to Work." The president once again signaled his support for pending free trade agreements (FTAs) with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, but then proceeded to blame Congressional ...

The Spanish equivalent of chutzpah is "sin vergüenza." It’s a phrase that comes to mind reading the transcript of President Obama’s recent weekly address on "Getting America Back to Work."

The president once again signaled his support for pending free trade agreements (FTAs) with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, but then proceeded to blame Congressional Republicans for ostensibly obstructing their final approval by refusing "to put country ahead of party." (Since he doesn’t specifically name Republicans, one has to infer he is not speaking about Democrats.)

The audacity is breathtaking. In fact, the charge didn’t escape notice by the Washington Post fact-checker, which admonished the President: "[w]e do think it is a highly selective recounting of…history for the president to suggest GOP lawmakers are blocking the deal because they are putting party before country."  

"Moreover," it adds, "Obama leaves the distinct impression that Congress is sitting on the bills, when in fact they have not yet been officially submitted for consideration."

The reason they haven’t been submitted is that the White House knows that the deals will be approved on a straight up-and-down vote in both houses, since a significant number of Democrats support the deals as a way to stimulate production and create jobs.

But the White House’s slow-roll is due to its deference to Big Labor, which opposes the deals and happens to be a key constituency of the president’s party – and just exactly who is putting party ahead of country?

Indeed, since they were first negotiated under the Bush administration, opponents of the FTAs have shifted the goal posts so many times for final approval that it has been difficult to keep up.

The latest hoop the White House expects Republicans to jump through to placate Big Labor is renewing Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program designed to assist workers who are dislocated because of increased foreign trade, but which costs taxpayers $1.3 billion this year alone.  

After initially balking at yet another condition – and an additional $1 billion in federal subsidies in these times of budget austerity – Senate Republicans announced in August that they had reached a deal with the Democratic leadership on "a path forward" to vote on the three trade deals along with a renewal of TAA, an agreement that was supported by House leaders as well.

Under the agreement, it likely won’t be until October when the deals will be taken up by Congress – which means anything can happen over the next several weeks. It certainly doesn’t bode well that, with the outlines of an agreement on Capitol Hill to move forward, including an extension of TAA, the president felt compelled to take a gratuitous swipe at Republicans. It isn’t clear what was it intended to accomplish other than to further inflame tensions on the Republican side.

Free trade agreements create jobs and keep the United States competitive in the dynamic and always evolving international economy. There is a strong bipartisan consensus on this on Capitol Hill. The only discordant note continues to be struck by a special interest group trying to hold the national interest hostage to its narrow agenda. It’s long past time to move beyond politics as usual on international trade, and, yes, Mr. President, that means folks — all folks — in Washington putting country before party.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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