Ohio reps cast skeptical eye on proposed trade agreement

The Trans-Pacific Partnership could wind up as the biggest trade agreement that never happened as Congress continues to hesitate granting President Obama authority to conclude it.

As for Southwest Ohio’s congressional delegation, it’s divided as well on how the 12-nation Asia-Pacific pact should conclude.

At issue is Congress granting Obama trade promotion authority, also known as fast-track, which would require Congress to vote a deal up or down once it concludes, barring legislators from making additions or changes to the final treaty.

The TPP was first conceived more than a decade ago and aims to expand free trade agreements among the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The agreement would facilitate trade by reducing or eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, advocates say.

Much of the disagreement here boils down to history. For Ohio, a key point is the legacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the state’s subsequent industrial and job losses. Critics of the TPP say its impact would be worse and cite the nation’s — and Ohio’s — ongoing manufacturing trade deficits.

Obama administration officials say they’ve learned from the downsides of trade agreements and that TPP won’t be a repeat and will correct imbalances. But fierce opposition to TPP has risen from trade unions and allied groups including Public Citizen, the consumer watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader.

The actual treaty has been shrouded in secrecy, with little detail slipping out aside from what are advertised as leaked documents posted online by WikiLeaks. The latest leaked chapter details the rights of foreign investors to sue governments.

Ken Poweski, a former steelworker who is now the Cleveland-based field coordinator for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a nonprofit advocate for domestic industry, spent time earlier this month lobbying Congress against TPP.

The Alliance, along with Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican, want assurances TPP will include checks on currency manipulation, or a nation artificially keeping the value of its currency low to advantage exports.

“We are trying to focus on jobs not being shipped out of here,” Poweski, who delivered thousands of letters opposing TPP, said. “This is killing us. We have gotten dumped steel and everything that goes along with it. America must get on a level playing field for this for manufacturers and workers.”

There’s the lopsided trade with Japan in autos as well, Poweski said, a key Ohio industry, although that’s an imbalance TPP advocates say would gradually improve under the treaty.

Scott Paul, president of the Alliance, said the TPP debate could conclude shortly. “I will say we are at a very critical time and the next two months will determine the fate of legislation to support American manufacturing,” he said.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., has staked out a position as a TPP advocate, fast-track included.

“Congressman Boehner is a strong supporter of promoting trade and opening new markets to Ohio farmers, small businesses and manufacturers. He continues to urge the president to engage with House and Senate Democrats and win their support for this important economic priority,” spokeswoman Olivia Hnat said, adding that 1.4 million Ohio jobs depend on international trade.

Sen. Brown, while advocating expanded international trade, rests his objections on how that trade has been managed, or mismanaged in his view.

“We’ve seen the results of our wrongheaded trade policy – plants across Ohio closed and took good-paying jobs with them,” Brown said. “If we fast-track proposals like TPP without oversight and transparency, we run the risk of a bad trade deal that betrays American workers. We need to hold countries accountable for unfair trade practices, including currency manipulation, receiving illegal subsidies, and selling goods in the U.S. below market price.”

Sen. Portman, who co-sponsored legislation in February with Brown targeting currency manipulation, strikes a similar tone.

“I believe we must tear down foreign barriers to ‘Made in America’ exports, which support over a quarter of Ohio manufacturing jobs and one of three acres of crops,” Portman said. “However, we must also hold our trading partners accountable for following the rules of the road. I have repeatedly called for currency protections to be included in any trade agreement to protect Ohio workers.”

Portman was among 60 Senators who signed a letter to the administration calling for currency issues to be addressed in trade agreements. He’s also pressed the point during Senate hearings with Obama cabinet officials, including last month with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and United States Trade Ambassador Michael Froman.

Among Ohio products targeted by illegal foreign subsidies are pipe and tube products for the oil industry, vehicles tires, light weight thermal paper and uncoated paper, Portman said.

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, also called for vigilance. “It is essential for the American economy that we promote fair trade policies that enable U.S. businesses to sell their products abroad and be competitive overseas,” Turner said. “Congress also needs to ensure that American workers and businesses are not being undercut by foreign governments who illegally manipulate their own currency.”

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