Dear Mr. A,
Thank you for contacting me about President Obama's trade agenda. I appreciate you taking the time to share your views with me.
To start off, let me apologize upfront for what will be a lengthy response. This is complex stuff, and it's important to me that you understand where I stand and how I've thought through this policy.
I grew up in Port Angeles, and saw industrial jobs move away. The closure of local mills had an enormous impact on the community and on a lot of families. It also had a significant impact on me. The challenges my hometown faced led me to study public policy and focus on economic development. Those challenges are why I spent a decade working in economic development, working with local employers to help them grow and keep jobs in our region. And it's why I entered public service in the first place. I want to see communities and families prosper. That means we've got to figure out a path forward where folks are growing jobs here rather than someplace else.
So, how does trade fit into all of this? Well, generally, our state does well when we're able to sell our apples, our manufactured wood products, our airplanes, our software, and other products overseas. According to the Trade Partnership Worldwide, exports from the district that I represent totaled more than $2 billion in 2013.
Over the years, I've met with dozens of small businesses in our region that employ American workers, make American products, and face global competition. Too often, though, when businesses in our area try to sell those products in other places, they face real barriers just trying to compete on a level playing field.
For example, when I started my work in economic development, I remember meeting with a local manufacturer of industrial fans. The head of the company was anguished as she explained that her innovations had been knocked off in Asia, shipped back to the U.S., and sold for a lower price. She bemoaned the lack of protection for American companies doing business abroad and talked about the extent to which the lack of intellectual property protections overseas undermined her ability to employ people here in America.
Earlier this year, I spoke with a manufacturer in Tacoma whose company makes American products made by American workers. But when that company tries to sell goods to Asia, their products consistently face high tariffs. The owner explained to me that he's been told numerous times that he could avoid tariffs if he would only move his jobs to China.
I think we need to put forward an agenda that ensures his business can stay here in America and that their American-made products are getting a fair shake overseas.
The barriers faced by companies in our region aren't unique.
After all, the United States makes up just 4% of the world population – so global trade is going to happen regardless of whether Congress passes trade legislation. The question is: how do we keep American workers and businesses competitive in a period of increasing globalization?
This is a particularly hot topic as the Administration continues negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement that would involve 40% of the world's economy.
President Obama maintains that trade agreements – if done right – could reduce trade barriers, open up access to new markets, and make it easier for products stamped "Made in America" to compete overseas. And when American-made goods and services have a fair shot, it means greater opportunities to expand production lines or hire more workers right here at home.
In making his case to Congress, the President has asked a key question: do we want America to sit back as China negotiates trade agreements around the world and seeks to set the rules of trade or do we want the United States to be involved in setting the rules?
It's a reasonable concern. We have to recognize that when China is sitting down with countries throughout the region, they aren't pushing for their trading partners to adopt meaningful labor and environmental standards. Instead, China is pushing a race to the bottom that's bad for workers and bad for the planet.
Even with that in mind, I believe that we need better trade deals than the ones we've had in the past. I do not want – nor would I support – an agreement that I believe would lead to American jobs going overseas. Above all, trade agreements must ensure that we are exporting our products – not exporting our jobs.
While the President continues to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I am withholding judgment. I don't yet have a position on it because many of the most critical provisions have not yet been ironed out. The economic and geopolitical stakes for our country are too high to support or oppose something without seeing the final product and determining whether it serves the best interests of our nation, its workers, and our environment.
In my view, it's critically important that our trade policies reflect our region's priorities and values. That means America can't put corporate profits above the rights of workers or the health of our environment.
So, how do we get there?
President Obama has said that he is working on a 21st Century trade agreement that includes these high standards. But our trading partners aren't going to put forward their best offers if they think that Congress is going to pick it apart and only try to pass bits and pieces of it. Like any deal, nothing's agreed to until everything's agreed to.
That's why over the past 40 years both parties have passed legislation known as "trade promotion authority" or TPA. Under a TPA bill, Congress gives the president direction about what they want to see in a trade agreement. If the president succeeds in a negotiating a trade agreement that meets those standards, Congress agrees to give the president an up-or-down vote on the agreement.
In response to President Obama's request for TPA, a bipartisan group of Senators and House Representatives negotiated the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act.
I pushed for that bill to include strong language that makes it clear to our trading partners that the United States will only enter into trade agreements with countries that meet high labor and environmental standards.
Specifically, any agreement needs to be clear that workers in those countries must be able to form unions and collectively bargain, and governments need to put an end to child labor and forced labor. That is non-negotiable and it must be central to any trade agreement with the United States. I'm pleased that this requirement is part of the TPA bill.
In addition, the bill sets out an expectation that high environmental standards be a central and enforceable part of future trade agreements. Every country that's a part of the trade agreement must be committed to protecting endangered species; tackling illegal trade of timber, wildlife, and fish; and eliminating harmful fish subsidies. As the dad of two little girls, I know that our kids are only as safe as the water they drink, the air they breathe, and the earth we pass on to them. I don't want to see a race to the bottom on environmental protection – nor anything that would undermine our efforts to protect our planet.
Critically, the bill also requires that any proposed trade agreements must give the United States the same tools to hold countries accountable for failing to live up to their labor and environmental commitments as they would for any other part of the trade agreement. Unlike NAFTA and other previous trade deals, labor and environmental obligations must be binding and enforceable on all parties.
I also fought to include provisions that make sure that the public has the opportunity to read, understand, and debate trade agreements before Congress takes a vote on them. Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." I couldn't agree more. Congress shouldn't rush to pass trade deals without the ability of the people to know what's in them. I said from the beginning of the debate on this bill that I did not want a "fast track" that inhibits the ability of the public to understand the specifics of any trade agreement. With that in mind, I'm pleased that this legislation guarantees that the public has 60 days to read the full text of a trade agreement before the president can sign it and another 30 days before Congress can even begin to consider it. That's a significant change from past approaches.
I've had some folks suggest that Congress should maintain its ability to amend agreements going forward. While I'm certainly sympathetic to that, having seen this Congress pass a lot of bills that would negatively impact workers and the planet, I'm unconvinced that allowing amendments would ensure better labor or environmental standards. Rather, under the current Congress, things could get much worse.
At the same time, I'm pleased that this legislation would also put in place a mechanism that would allow either the House or the Senate, acting on its own, to stop a bad trade deal from taking advantage of TPA's streamlined voting procedures.
Finally, this bill also would make clear that trade agreements cannot by themselves change U.S. law. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has to have a say regarding how our nation's laws are changed, and I think it's important that any legislation related to trade agreements makes that very clear.
This is a difficult issue because past trade agreements haven't always lived up to their promises. That said, having met the criteria I laid out above, I decided to support giving President Obama trade promotion authority. With my support, the House passed the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act by a vote of 218-208. If the Senate passes this same bill, it would go to the president to be signed into law.
If the bill is signed into law, that won't be the end of the story. If President Obama succeeds in negotiating a trade agreement that meets the high standards laid out in this legislation, it will still have to come to Congress for a vote. I've made it clear to the President that if he comes back with a bad deal, I will vote it down.
Let me touch on one final issue in closing.
With or without trade agreements, global competition is a reality in today's economy. When companies and workers need to adapt to a changing marketplace, we need to make sure that they can get the resources that they need to get back to work and keep our economy growing. That's why I support strong Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). This program is specifically designed to help workers respond to the challenges of the global marketplace by providing them with new skills and helping them compete for new job opportunities. Whether someone has lost their job because of international trade or due to a new competitor just across town, we have to make sure we're creating pathways for folks to get decent new jobs as soon as possible. TAA is an important tool to make that a reality, and I feel very strongly that Congress must extend it.
As debate over President Obama's trade agenda continues, please know that I greatly appreciate your insight and feedback in this process and your input regarding how we can strengthen America's middle-class. That's a critical priority for me. Please be sure that I will keep your thoughts and concerns in mind as Congress continues to debate this issue.
Member of Congress