In the closing hours of a Congress that did little to distinguish itself, the lawmakers did right by the cause of free trade. They normalized trade relations with Vietnam, expanded trade preferences for Haiti, renewed them for four Andean nations and renewed other trade benefits for sub-Saharan Africa.
The Democrats had been making noise about opposing some of the trade deals, but in the end, half of House Democrats voted for them, including, encouragingly, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and incoming Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel.
Free trade — or, to be exact, freer trade — is a cause peculiarly susceptible to demagoguery and special interests. But trade has been overwhelmingly good for the U.S. economy and protectionism generally bad, sometimes very bad, as in the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930 that greatly exacerbated the Depression at home and contributed greatly to making it global.
Trade is the driving engine of the global economy. As economics writer Robert Samuelson notes, since 1980 global exports tripled while the global economy only doubled.
True, the United States has run a trade deficit, but for largely benign reasons. Our economy has been booming while others have not and the dollar has generally been strong. Since 1980, again according to Samuelson, the trade deficit went from $19 billion to around $786 billion, while the number of American jobs grew from 99 million to 145 million.
The new Congress should quickly approve pending agreements with Peru and Colombia and then quickly address an even more pressing trade issue — the president’s fast-track trade-promotion authority, which expires in June.
The authority allows the president to negotiate trade agreements and then requires Congress to approve or reject them as a whole. The idea is to give our trading partners confidence that they can reach agreement and then not have Congress rewrite the deal.
The authority lapsed in 1994, but the Republican Congress spitefully refused to renew it for President Bill Clinton while later doing so for President Bush. We hope the new Democratic Congress won’t be so petty.