Newly enacted legislation that calls for quicker congressional action on trade agreements and lays out U.S. negotiating objectives in those talks has won praise from business groups, including construction-equipment manufacturers, but critics worry that the measure's environmental and labor provisions aren't strong enough.
President Obama signed the trade bill on June 29 along with a measure extending a program providing educational aid and other financial assistance to workers who lose jobs because of trade agreements.
The fast-track bill has been controversial and pitted many lawmakers from the president’s own party against an odd alliance of pro-business Republicans and the White House.
The legislation enables Congress to approve or disapprove a trade pact—such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership now being negotiated—with a simple up-or-down vote. The bill's passage is seen as a significant victory for Obama.
Nick Yaksich, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers’ vice president for government and industry relations, praises the fast-track measure.
“I think it’s an important message to the rest of the world that we’re serious about negotiating,” he says. “Our trading partners know there is path forward now, at least to get before the Congress and have an up-or-down vote.”
But labor unions and environmental groups have strongly opposed fast-track and the TPP. Roy Houseman, legislative representative for the United Steelworkers (USW), says organized labor has “significant concerns” about the enforceability of labor protections, particularly in Vietnam and Mexico, as well as basic environmental standards.
Unions are also concerned that workers will lose jobs as U.S. companies close domestic facilities to avoid more stringent environmental and labor laws, Houseman says.
TPP, which involves the U.S. and 11 Asian Pacific region countries, has been negotiated largely in secret over the past five years.
Caterpillar Inc. strongly supports trade deals like the TPP, says Bill Lane, the company's global director of government affairs.
He says that that increased market access is the agreement's main benefit for companies such as Caterpillar.
Lane adds, "By eliminating all tariffs in the region, opening government procurement and removing restrictions on remanufactured products, the TPP will make it easier for our Asia Pacific customers to buy the Caterpillar products made in central Illinois."
Looking forward, the USW's Houseman says, “While we may have had a disagreement with the administration on fast-track trade authority, we are going to do everything in our power to engage to ensure that the trade partnership that comes forward is—as the president promises it will be—as progressive as possible.”
Yaksich notes that AEM's members include union and non-union companies. He says that “there’s a sensitivity amongst those companies, but in the end the recognition has to be that we’re creating jobs” through the trade agreements.