TAA Reversal on Grand Bargain

On Monday, a group of 41 Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI) sent a letter to President Obama, praising his administration’s recent decision to abandon its erstwhile promotion of the three pending trade deals as “job creators” and instead warn Congress it won’t submit the pacts for a vote unless they can be assured that a stimulus-enhanced version of trade adjustment assistance will be renewed.

The letter contains much about the benefits of the program, with little mention of its costs to taxpayers and even less concern shown for the innocent consumers whose pockets have been picked for decades to maintain the jobs lost when trade is allowed to flow more freely. That’s pretty standard fare for protectionists, who rely on the hidden and dispersed nature of the costs to get support for their policies. What’s new about this situation is the ratchet effect – the base TAA program is still in place, so what they are asking for is a renewal of part of the stimulus as a pre-condition for supporting trade liberalization. Note that the stimulus changes included a removal of the requirement that job losses be linked to a trade agreement (a feature, not a bug of the program, according to the Senators).

Wait, did I say a renewal of TAA-plus would be a pre-condition for supporting trade agreements? Not necessarily. Note this telling paragraph of the letter:

While we the undersigned may have differing views on elements of the trade agenda - with some of us looking forward to supporting the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, and others skeptical of the impact of the agreements -we are unified in our belief that the first order of business, before we should consider any FTA, is securing a long-term TAA extension.  [emphasis added]

As I’ve said repeatedly, I understand (even if I don’t support) the political calculation that TAA is necessary – and worth it– if it secures votes for trade liberalization. But reading between the lines, some of the letter signers have no intention voting for the trade agreements, even if the mega-TAA is approved.  What we have here is a reversal of the grand bargain on trade liberalization, that gave extra welfare to workers who lost their job because of freer trade in exchange for support for trade agreements that lowered trade barriers. That ‘grand bargain’ has been tenuous for years now, of course – witness the complete lack of movement on the trade agreements even after the 2009 enhancement of TAA, at least until recent months. But now, rather than using TAA to buy votes for trade liberalization, the administration and their allies appear to using pretty-much-assured votes for trade liberalization to buy TAA. As a Wall Street Journal editorial said on Friday, it’s extortion.