If Republican lawmakers have their way, Congress will ratify three free-trade agreements: with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. But many of those same legislators would leave hundreds of thousands of workers from California to Michigan hurt by increased imports or by shifts in production abroad without jobs or adequate income support, training and job search and relocation allowances.
Trade has been a significant driver of economic growth, and expanding exports is important for job creation, but trade also comes with painful dislocations that threaten the livelihoods of many workers and their families.
This is why Congress and the White House must ensure that the passage of the three pending free-trade agreements is accompanied by the renewal of the May 2009 Trade Adjustment Assistance package, which provides all workers with these essential services they need to get back on their feet.
There used to be a bipartisan agreement on TAA. There should be again.
In May 2009, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) championed a bipartisan expansion of TAA, which, among other changes, extended coverage to all workers affected by international trade — not just by free-trade agreements — and to public- and service-sector workers.
“This legislation expands the scope and scale of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program to better meet the needs of workers in the globalized economy,” Grassley said at the time. “It improves the program’s transparency, accountability and oversight at the state and federal level. These changes will help American workers for years to come.”
But today, Republican lawmakers are either outright against TAA or support only a scaled-back version that restricts the number of eligible workers and cuts back benefits not only from 2009 levels but even below what existed before the 2009 expansion.
According to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), “There’s no appetite on Capitol Hill for more spending, even for a program designed to help workers retrain for other jobs.” With the unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent, Hatch and his conservative colleagues are willing to throw more workers out of their jobs but not help them find new sources of employment.
It’s not likely that the 2,526 workers in Utah who received trade adjustment assistance last year would be pleased with their Senator’s statement; nor would the 34,931 workers in Michigan, 20,636 workers in California and 25,822 in Ohio — states most affected by the economic shifts that come with trade.
And the savings this will bring to taxpayers? The expanded version of TAA constituted only $1.8 billion, or 0.05 percent of the nation’s overall budget, in 2010 — a small price to pay to help workers find jobs and continue to be productive members of the economy.
Some GOP lawmakers, including Camp and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) are on record as saying they would support TAA, but only the scaled-back version. This means lower benefits to fewer workers. With 14 million unemployed, a 9.1 percent unemployment rate and bleak growth projections of 2.5 percent this year and 2.7 percent next year, it doesn’t make sense to scale back benefits to pre-crisis levels.
To be sure, there is room to improve TAA. Crafting a system that provides adjustment assistance to all dislocated workers regardless of how they lost their jobs would be a much better fit for America’s dynamic economy and would help reduce the onerous process workers have to go through to get certified for TAA.
But this would take time. Until broader legislation can be crafted, the May 2009 version of TAA should be renewed without further delay. The White House and progressive Members of Congress should accept nothing less.
Sabina Dewan is director of globalization and international employment at the Center for American Progress.
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