House set to take up fast-track trade bill

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Labor unions and House Democrats are gearing up for an expected vote on fast-trade authority as early as next week that would give the Obama administration the authority to win an up or down vote on a 12-nation Asia Pacific free trade deal.

The Senate voted 62-37 last month to allow the Obama administration to get an up or down vote on trade deals without amendments. Both Michigan senators voted against it and most members of Michigan’s delegation oppose the bill, including several Republicans.

In the House, nearly all Democrats oppose the measure, which may have the support of fewer than 20 Democrats. The White House will rely on Republicans to get the 218 votes needed to approve the bill.

The biggest issue for automakers is whether the bill will include provisions on currency. Proponents lost a bid to get currency included in the Senate version of fast-track.

Ford Motor Co. has been sounding the alarm on currency since 2011 during the Korea Free Trade talks, and major unions like the AFL-CIO and United Auto Workers and progressive groups have helped make currency manipulation the biggest roadblock to the Obama administration’s desire to win approval.

Reducing the value of another country’s currency makes its exports cheaper and its imports more expensive in dollar terms.

For more than seven years, the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada and eight other nations have been negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would create a free trade zone. Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam are also part of the negotiations.

On Friday, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, held a press conference with labor leaders — including new Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber — and Ford to talk about the importance of currency. She said supporters currently don’t have the votes to approve the measure.

“It does nothing to ensure the Trans-Pacific Partnership and future trade agreements will stop currency manipulation, the mother of all trade barriers,” she said. “When countries like Japan artificially weaken their currency, it tilts the playing field to their advantage and makes it difficult for American workers to compete ... . At what point are we going to say, enough? We’ve got to do something to protect American jobs and keep these manufacturing jobs in this country.”

Bieber said Michigan has lost thousands of jobs because of other free trade deals. “Fast track legislation allowed the North American Free Trade Agreement to be rammed through Congress, and the result was lost jobs and lower wages for American workers. We know our representatives locally will stand up for us and our jobs, but fast track takes away any ability for them to do so. We need to fight for good paying middle-class jobs, and it is critical we all stand together to stop fast track,” Bieber said.

The administration has steadfastly refused to yield any ground, but in recent months shifted its tone to emphasize it sympathizes with people who are worried about currency manipulation and pointed to efforts through international forums like the World Trade Organization to address it.

The White House has been lobbying Democrats to back the bill and President Barack Obama gave interviews to TV stations in districts of Democrats that could back the bill. But he has stayed away from Michigan, where opposition is strong.

The pact eventually would end America’s 25 percent tariffs on imported light trucks and 2.5 percent tariffs on cars and auto parts. The tariff has been in place for more than 50 years.

Those tariffs, especially the truck tax, have forced foreign automakers to build truck and SUV plants in the United States and helped keep some would-be competitors out of the truck market that Detroit’s Big Three dominates.

The administration says currency issues can be dealt with in other international forums, not trade deals.