Obama's trade-deal switcheroo
Early this year in his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama hailed a trade pact with South Korea "that will support at least 70,000 American jobs."
But the president recently threw a new obstacle in front of this trade agreement -- and two others with Panama and Colombia.
Never mind that all three pacts were actually negotiated by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and had been languishing in a Democratic-controlled Congress because of union opposition through the worst of the recession in spite of their job-creating potential.
Never mind that Mr. Obama pulled back the Korean pact and softened it to protect jobs in government-subsidized, partly union-owned General Motors and Chrysler.
And never mind that the economy desperately needs the boost from expanded foreign trade the pacts are designed to promote.
President Obama has announced that the agreements come with a price.
Before Congress can vote on these economy-boosting measures, the president wants it to extend special unemployment benefits for workers displaced by foreign competition first enacted as part of his 2009 stimulus law. But an agreement to rein in temporary higher unemployment benefits was part of the budget bargain he struck with House Republicans in December.
If congressional Republicans sense that they have been victims of a switcheroo, they have reason. The sums involved amount to roughly $1 billion of added spending a year. That is not a huge amount by federal budgetary standards. But it is discouraging to see the president still pushing for higher spending that will mainly benefit his union supporters.
Gene Sperling, the president's economy czar, was blunt, saying that "the administration will not submit implementing legislation on these" Free Trade Agreements "until we have an agreement with Congress on the renewal of a robust, expanded TAA program."
Trade Adjustment Assistance is a federal program of cash allowances given to unemployed workers displaced by foreign competition so they can attend training to find new work.
The 2009 stimulus law boosted existing TAA benefits 20 to 25 percent and eased other requirements making it possible for displaced workers to get 99 weeks of unemployment benefits plus up to $12,000 cash for 130 weeks of training.
It expired in February. Now the president wants the temporary TAA measures put into permanent law.
Trade Adjustment Assistance has been a regular feature of U.S. trade expansion policy for decades, supported by both parties. But like any other federal program, its costs must be justified.
Permanently retaining the emergency level of assistance to the 2008-2009 financial crisis would be counterproductive to the recovery. It also would be a blatant sop to the president's union base.