McConnell blasts the president's political posturing on free trade deals

A few weeks ago, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler debunked the president’s oft-repeated claim that the legislative branch bears responsibility for delayed final passage of three free trade agreements first signed in 2009. Perhaps that’s why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the opinion pages of WaPo today to accuse the president of indefensible disingenuousness about the deals. Even the headline of the piece was hard-hitting. “Why are three free trade deals languishing on the president’s desk?” the hed blared. McConnell proceeded to build his case against the president from there:

For nearly three years, Republicans and a number of Democrats have been calling on the president to approve these deals to create a level playing field with America’s competitors overseas, vastly expand the market for U.S. goods, strengthen our ties with three important allies and create jobs for Americans. Yet the deals have been stuck at the White House since Inauguration Day.

Publicly, the White House claims to support all three agreements. It even said in July that Republicans are the ones standing in the way of ratification. But this is absurd because Congress can’t ratify trade agreements until the president submits them for congressional approval. He knows as well as I do that once he does, all three would garner wide bipartisan support.

What’s the real holdup? For three years, the administration has delayed finalizing these deals because unions have been extracting concessions in exchange for their support. Early on, they demanded further concessions and political reforms from our trading partners, all of which have been satisfied. Now, they’re demanding taxpayer funds for worker training programs that many believe are not only duplicative and costly but may not even be effective. Still, I and others have told the president we are prepared to allow this program to move ahead for a vote as a sign of good faith and to move the trade deals forward.

That’s right: Congressional Republicans — whom the president never fails to accuse of flatly refusing to compromise (in some cases, the president has even preemptively accused R’s of “playing political games”) — agreed to allow a vote to move forward on Trade Adjustment Assistance (the training programs for which the president has been holding the trade deals hostage) just to demonstrate their willingness to work with The One.

That’s mighty big of the Republicans, especially considering TAA doesn’t deserve the support the president demands (although, like McConnell, I’ll grant the “good faith” merit of a debate and vote on TAA). Heritage Action’s Mike Needham explains:

TAA provides overly generous benefits for just a small fraction of laid-off workers. TAA gives those workers two years of job training, a year of Trade Adjustment Allowances, money for job searching and relocation, a refundable health care tax credit and a two-year wage insurance program to supplement lower earnings.

Those benefits, which go far beyond what most unemployed workers receive, are expensive. Congress appropriated roughly $2 billion in 2010. The White House claims extending the program for another decade would cost taxpayers an additional $7.2 billion.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk described the White House’s insistence as an effort to keep “faith with America’s workers.” However, there is no evidence to suggest the program’s assistance and training improves workers’ future earnings. A study by the Government Accountability Office confirmed the predictable trend.

“Just to be clear,” as the president loves to say: These free-trade agreements will result in a net increase of jobs. As McConnell says in his op-ed, the White House’s own estimate puts the number of new jobs likely to be generated by the trade pacts at (the very scientific) tens of thousands. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that completing these agreements would protect 380,000 jobs.

The president is willing to jeopardize hundreds of thousands of jobs — and forsake tens of thousands of new ones — just because Congress might not allow him to spend $7.2 billion of taxpayer money on training programs we don’t need? Indefensible, indeed.

Yet, somehow, I have the feeling the president will still smugly mention the FTAs in his jobs speech Thursday, as though Congress, and not he, is responsible for the tenuous situation of the trade pacts. At that point, I just might have to turn off my TV.