Editorial: Trade deal would boost economy

The Detroit News

Democrats have been almost blindly loyal to President Barack Obama during his six-and-a-half year tenure. But just when he's finally embracing a sensible economic growth policy, they're bailing on him.

While the president may have barely enough Democratic support in the Senate to get fast track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership passed, opposition to the measure among his own party in the House is nearly unanimous.

A majority of Republicans in both chambers support giving Obama the power to negotiate on his own a 12-country Pacific Rim trade deal. Yet there's enough GOP defectors in the House to defeat the bill without at least some Democratic support.

Among the defectors from what has been a longstanding Republican orthodoxy are tea party members who, like their Democratic colleagues, are convinced protectionism saves America jobs (it doesn't) and those anti-Obama hardliners who otherwise support free trade but are now locked into saying "blue" anytime the president says "red."

Fast-track authority offers the hope of providing a boost to the nation's sluggish economy. Pushing freer trade with the rising Trans-Pacific nations should accelerate sluggish growth, which has averaged just above 2 percent a year during Obama's presidency.

Blocking fast-track will not protect American jobs. Rather, it will likely drive American jobs to other places with fewer restrictions.

The history of protectionism is that it raises costs for consumers and invites other countries to retaliate by closing their markets to U.S. goods and services. That is a recipe for stagnation in a global economy, where money flows freely between stable nations, as do jobs.

There is a strong appetite among the Pacific Rim nations for the high-quality goods produced by high-skilled workers in the United States.

Obama is right that America must be the trade leader in the region. If it steps back, China will step in. Its giant market and vast untapped economic potential already make it a formidable competitor; if its markets are more open to trade, it will have an insurmountable advantage.

Democrats are bowing to labor unions, who falsely believe they can trap jobs in the U.S. by keeping out foreign goods. Some industries, including Detroit's automakers, also have expressed concern about unfair trade practices such as currency manipulation. The U.S. would have more leverage in pushing for fair trade if it is engaged in vigorous free trade with the offending nations.

The president is not asking for anything new. Congress has adopted Trade Promotion Authority bills for 30 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Republicans gave the authority to Bill Clinton to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has increased exports to Canada and Mexico.

Certainly, the agreements can be disruptive to some industries. That's why, like this bill, they generally include remediation provisions to compensate workers for lost jobs and retrain them for new ones.

But on the whole, free trade boosts economic growth and leads to jobs expansion. Congress should authorize the president to forge this latest free trade agreement.