The Follies of Fast Track

Even before the ink was dry on the deal between committee leaders on fast-track trade-negotiating authority, Cabinet secretaries were already completely ignoring its milquetoast terms.

And that should tell you a lot about the direction this debate is headed.

There's a passing reference to currency in the fast-track bill draft unveiled on Thursday, but there's no requirement that it be deterred in any enforceable or meaningful way, inside or outside trade agreements such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP has already largely been negotiated, even though this current debate on trade-negotiating authority pretends to inform it. And it's abundantly apparent from the comments of President Barack Obama, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Trade Ambassador Michael Froman that currency manipulation won't be addressed in any enforceable way as part of the TPP.

For American workers, that's bad news.

Currency undervaluation by Japan and other structural impediments to our exports that won't be addressed by the TPP cost the U.S. nearly 900,000 job opportunities in 2013. Meanwhile, Japan exports more than 1 million vehicles to the U.S. every year, and we export a paltry 24,000 in return.

So here's fact no. 1: There's only weak language on currency in the fast-track bill, and it's already being ignored. And the fact that it is being ignored will cost the U.S. factory jobs.

Here's fact no. 2: Even the most glowing economic analysis (the "Petri" study) of the benefits of the TPP predicts that it will widen our already enormous trade deficit in manufacturing.

We already have the world's largest trade deficit in manufacturing, and the TPP would grow it. Unless the proponents of TPP are willing to admit that surrendering more manufacturing overseas is the price we are paying for some abstract idea of geopolitical leadership and influence, then they are being quite disingenuous.

And here's fact no. 3: Many of our manufacturers are already facing unfair trade practices that are costing jobs. And so far there is nothing in the fast-track bill or TPP to give them any hope that the scenario would change.

U.S. laws that provide enforcement against unfair trade practices are way too weak; an industry and its workers have to be in the economic equivalent of the ICU before they can even petition for relief. And then it takes in some cases a year or more to see the results of their petition.

I've seen this firsthand. Workers I've rallied with last year in states like Alabama, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, and Pennsylvania are already facing pink slips because of a surge of steel imports. But, at this point, all that the proponents of the TPP are offering them is a program that offers retraining opportunities for jobs that pay much less, if they're lucky enough to land one. These workers would much rather keep the good jobs they have.

A smart package of trade law and enforcement reforms has been proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, domestic manufacturers, and the United Steelworkers union. But it's not currently anywhere on the trade agenda as Congress and the president rush to seal this fast-track deal as is.

That's horribly shortsighted, and it's past time for President Obama and Congress to change course. The jobs of our workers and livelihoods of our domestic manufacturers depend on it.