1. Opinion

Editorial: Congress should clear way for free trade pact

Published Jun. 22, 2015

It has been an unnecessarily bumpy road, but the path finally should be clear this week for Congress to grant President Barack Obama fast-track authority to finish an ambitious trans-Pacific trade deal. Just a few more Senate Democrats today need to join Sen. Bill Nelson in seeing the bigger picture and allowing the president to complete the largest free trade agreement ever. Despite protests from labor unions and liberal Democrats, this is the best approach to completing the negotiations and presenting the deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

House Democrats nearly derailed the fast-track authority and a key portion of Obama's economic agenda earlier this month by voting against an aid package for workers that they normally would support. But the House Republican leadership successfully maneuvered last week to revive fast-track authority, which would prevent Congress from making changes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership after an agreement is reached between the United States and 11 other countries. That legislation narrowly passed 218-208, with most Republicans such as Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Dennis Ross of Lakeland voting for it and most Democrats such as Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa voting against it.

So the spotlight moves back to the Senate today, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still looking for enough Democrats to join Republicans to take up both the fast-track authority and the aid package for workers. Congress should approve both pieces of legislation, and Obama should get on with finalizing the trade agreement. The time to decide for sure whether the pact is in the nation's best interest is when it is completed and publicly vetted, not now.

The Pacific agreement has been in the works for a decade, and it would expand U.S. access to 40 percent of the global economy. It would reduce trade barriers in a fast-growing area of the world, and it would level the playing field in areas such as intellectual property rights. A University of Chicago survey finds most of the nation's top economists say trade agreements have been good for most Americans, and there should be opportunities here to increase exports and encourage innovation.

The labor unions who have pushed Democrats to kill the fast-track authority the president needs to complete the trade agreement argue that the pact would stifle pay increases and cost jobs. But economists suggest it would slightly raise U.S. incomes, and many of the nation's manufacturing jobs are being lost to improvements in technology, not free trade agreements. The union opposition also has prompted Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to hedge her once-unqualified support of the Pacific agreement, but the economic debate should be focused on expanding global opportunities rather than retreating into populist protectionism.

The United States needs to create more good-paying jobs for workers, but avoiding free trade agreements is not the way to do it. What the nation cannot afford is to watch from afar as Asia grows and China expands its influence there. Congress should grant Obama the fast-track authority he needs to complete negotiations on the trans-Pacific trade agreement, and then it can fully explore the details and vote it up or down.