“Known Knowns” on TAA and the trade debate

If Democrats gamble with Trade Adjustment Assistance, American workers could be the losers.

Image credit: iStock

On June 12, the trade debate in Washington took a turn for the bizarre. A majority of House Democrats—at the urging of organized labor—joined Republicans in voting down legislation to provide training and support for displaced workers. The program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance or TAA, has long enjoyed near-unanimous support from Democrats, unions and progressives. But TAA was tied to another trade bill that Democratic trade opponents don’t like—Trade Promotion Authority or TPA. TPA would establish a process for concluding and voting on new trade agreements, which trade critics oppose. By killing TAA, Democratic trade opponents believed that they would kill TPA and, with it, the Obama trade agenda.

But Obama and his bipartisan allies in Congress aren’t giving up that easily. Last week, Congressional leaders started the process again, and this time TAA and TPA aren’t formally linked. A stand-alone TPA has passed the House, and there will be trade votes in the Senate and House this week. Obama and his Democratic trade allies strongly support TAA and TPA and believe that—even without formal linkage—the new process will bring both to the President’s desk.

In response, Democratic trade opponents are threatening to again vote against assistance for workers, hoping that these threats will somehow disrupt the process. But this strategy creates a profound dilemma for Democrats, especially for those who may not support TPA, but believe in TAA.

In resolving this dilemma, these Democrats might look to an unlikely source—former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In remarks that were both praised and parodied, Rumsfeld once noted that there are three kinds of facts: (1) “known knowns” (what we know we know), (2) “known unknowns” (what we know we don’t know), and (3) “unknown unknowns” (what we don’t know we don’t know). The first two are important here.

When it comes to Trade Adjustment Assistance, there are many things we know:

  • TAA helps an estimated 100,000 American workers each year to pay their bills while training to gain new job skills;
  • TAA was established by President Kennedy and has been a priority for Democrats, unions, and progressives for over 50 years;
  • When TAA was last passed in 2011, it received unanimous support from Democrats, including 125 who are still in Congress;
  • The new TAA bill would extend the program for six years—far longer than supporters initially hoped;
  • The new TAA legislation would expand the program to workers in the services sector and to those impacted by trade with countries like China and India;
  • And, importantly, if Congress doesn’t act, TAA will expire on September 30th.

There’s another critical thing we know about TAA—most Republicans don’t support it, and many conservatives strongly oppose it. Republicans included TAA in the trade package because they knew TAA was important to President Obama and pro-trade Democrats. But if TAA were to stand truly alone, a Republican-led Congress is very unlikely even to consider it—especially if Democrats have repeatedly voted it down.

The threat by opponents to bring down TPA by again voting against TAA, on the other hand, is largely based on speculative unknowns. TPA and TAA are no longer formally linked, so opponents can’t directly kill TPA by killing TAA. And TPA has passed the House. Opponents’ only hope is that threats to vote against TAA will erode support for TPA from Senators who support worker assistance, or that Obama will refuse to sign TPA—a key priority—if TAA is defeated. But after months of assault by trade opponents, pro-trade Democrats remain strongly committed to TPA. And members like Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Jim Himes (D-CT) are reportedly convinced that Obama will sign TPA even if TAA is defeated.

We know other things. If TPA is approved, the trade debate will continue—but under new rules that will bring added transparency to the process. Among other things, any new trade agreement will have to be posted on the Internet for two months before the President can even sign it, and for months more before Congress can vote. This, of course, means that there will be months of debate among supporters and opponents about what we will actually know—the detailed provisions of the proposed new trade deals.

Some critics charge that Democrats who oppose the Administration’s trade agenda are “know-nothings,” a Tea Party of the left. But these Democrats—and others—actually know a lot. They know that Trade Adjustment Assistance is too important to many thousands of workers to fall victim to political gamesmanship. And they know that, under TPA, Washington—and the nation—will continue a vigorous debate on trade.

Ed Gerwin is President of Trade Guru LLC, Senior Fellow for Trade and Global Opportunity at the Progressive Policy Institute and a Senior Contributing Editor for Republic 3.0.