In January, I was asked to sign a letter to President Barack Obama expressing deep concern with the prospect of fast-track trade authority. Allowing the president to strike sweeping trade deals outside of the congressional amendment process is an almost unfettered power that in too many instances has led to the exploitation of the American worker. In signing the letter, I stood as an opponent of a fast-tracked, up-or-down House vote on an upcoming trade deal that I wasn’t confident would protect my district’s working families.
After more than five months of trade briefings, reviews of classified trade documents, and extensive conversations with those brokering a potential Trans-Pacific Partnership, my confidence has changed.
In talking to working families, small business owners, organized labor leaders and our president, I believe that both sides of the fast-track and TPP debate seek the same thing: a fair opportunity for American workers to compete and an expanded marketplace for the goods they produce. These conversations have given me confidence – for the first time – that our president and his negotiating team will demand that any trade deal accomplish these goals without sacrificing the worker and environmental protections that have shamefully eluded past accords.
I am not one to close my mind to competing arguments – even after I’ve adopted my own. There’s nothing heroic about stridence in the face of reason. When it comes to advocating for working families, there isn’t anything courageous about intransigence in the face of fact.
Politics in Washington too frequently muddles these truths when conveniently lining up the sides of a debate. Even if I bear the political cost of it, I’d rather battle than abet that unfortunate reality.
Far too many things are getting lost in an important debate that has listed wildly between public policy, theatre, and threat. But a few things to me have become crystal clear, and these are what I’m going to let guide my vote when fast track hits the House floor in the coming weeks.
There is no question that past trade deals have failed to pay off for most American workers. Rather than grow our economy by boosting exports and giving American businesses entry into new markets, trade agreements have too often led to an influx of cheap imports and the outsourcing of American jobs to countries lacking enforceable labor protections and environmental regulations. Past trade deals have tilted the competitive floor away from our workers.
We cannot grow our economy and restore a prosperous American middle class without increasing American exports. Economic isolation is not a path to broad-based opportunity when more than 95 percent of the world’s customers live in other countries. We must find a way to ensure that more middle-class customers around the world are buying more products made by middle-class American workers.
Several labor unions have made it their priority to kill fast-track authority and any potential trade deal that would follow its lead. Stung by the crippling effects of NAFTA and trade deals that have only exacerbated the plight of the American worker, these labor leaders have voiced nearly unprecedented opposition to what could be the signature economic accomplishment of an inarguably worker-friendly president.
Lost in the ensuing dust-up is that the fast-track legislation recently passed by the Senate outlines unprecedented requirements to address the worker-protection problems of NAFTA. It sets high labor and environmental standards, and ensures that trade sanctions can be imposed on any country that fails to meet these marks. It requires the U.S. Trade Representative to keep members of Congress informed throughout the negotiations, and for the first time ever it creates a way for either the House or the Senate to revoke the power if we determine that a trade agreement is not meeting the negotiating objectives outlined in fast-track legislation.
Importantly, the legislation reaches a balance between presidential power and congressional oversight that won’t forever cripple our nation’s ability to broker good deals for our workers with foreign countries.
Defeating fast-track authority would strip the long-held power of the president to expand the marketplace for our workers. It would give China the opportunity to set the ground rules for the global marketplace. It would leave in place the weak worker protection and environmental standards of previous agreements.
I have always supported organized labor and always will. From prosecuting labor law violators, to advocating for a minimum wage increase to fighting outsourcing and erosions of their power to bargain collectively, I’m proud to be an advocate for the working families and union members that form the backbone of our workforce.
But when it comes to trade in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, those of us who truly care about American workers have to modernize our thinking and objectively evaluate deals outside of the shadow of past failures. Killing fast track and TPP won’t kill NAFTA any more than handing President Obama a setback would hand one to Bill Clinton.
The president has made a compelling case for why the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be different than prior trade deals and why fast-track authority is necessary to getting it done. I’ve done my homework and I agree with him.
Rep. Rice represents New York’s 4th District