Fact-checking the president on free trade

If you’ve heard the president say it once, you’ve heard him say it countless times: There are things Congress could do “right now” to get the economy moving again. You know, things like an extension of the payroll tax cut, boosts to unemployment benefits and … the quick and immediate passage of stalled free trade agreements.

Just one problem with that last one: The president has never officially submitted the trade agreements to Congress for approval. Every time I report on a speech in which the president hints the legislative branch is the hold-up, I cringe, knowing Obama is not exactly telling the whole truth. But how are listeners to know if no one calls him on it?

That’s why I was so refreshed to read Glenn Kessler’s consistently excellent fact-checking column in The Washington Post this morning. Kessler explains why Obama can claim support for the FTAs, blame Congress for its refusal to act on the agreements and yet refuse to move the trade legislation forward himself.

A key factor in the delay in submitting the trade pacts is something called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which was first created in 1962 to help workers and companies deal with the fallout from greater free trade. As the Congressional Research Service documented in an interesting report last month, TAA has frequently been tied to trade deals, in part to win Democratic votes for trade liberalization.

In May, the Obama administration announced that it would not seek approval of the three trade deals unless Congress agreed to restore the TAA, which had been allowed to lapse in February. What came first — the Republicans’ refusal to extend the program, citing its cost, or the administration’s decision to tie TAA to the trade deals?

Or maybe first came the huge expansion of TAA in the stimulus bill by Democrats, which made TAA a target for Republicans? Or maybe it was first the refusal of Democrats to approve the trade pacts — which date back to 2006 — in the waning days of the Bush administration?

Even with this explanation, though, the administration better be prepared to drop its talking point because Republicans have signaled a willingness to vote on TAA legislation, too. “I look forward to the House passing the FTAs, in tandem with separate consideration of TAA legislation, as soon as possible,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have announced a deal that would allow both the FTAs and the TAA extension to move forward at the same time.

Kessler concludes Obama’s little white lie lies at the “One Pinocchio” end of his grading scale, which means Kessler thinks Obama was guilty of “Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.” In the end, Kessler writes, and I agree, it’s highly disingenuous of the president to give “the distinct impression that Congress is sitting on the bills, when in fact they have not yet been officially submitted for consideration.”

A more forthright mention of this issue in the future would be much appreciated, Mr. President.