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Dems cave on TPP after "holding out for more sugar in the coffee"

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief

President Obama's effort to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) hit a temporary roadblock earlier this week as Senate Democrats blocked debate on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which the President says he needs to finalize the massive trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other nations. But what many in the press called a "stinging rebuke" for the President indeed turned out to be a mere "procedural snafu", as the White House dubbed it.

Late Wednesday, Senate Democrats agreed to a compromise under which a seperate vote will be held on a bill designed to discourage alleged currency manipulation.

Rick Helfenbein, chairman of the board of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, says Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) were "holding out for more sugar in the coffee" but predicts TPP and TPA "absolutely will pass" in the end.

"Senator Schumer has been fighting for currency manipulation [legislation] for a long time - he wants to see it passed,"  Helfenbein says. "But do you really need it for TPP countries? Is New Zealand or Australia manipulating their currency? It's absurd."

It's fairly obvious Sen. Schumer's concern is with China when it comes to currency manipulation but "there's a fallacy about that" too, Helfenbein says. Senate democrats "feel it's a good idea to have it in and can claim victory." (To me, holding up major trade legislation so you can pass something you know will be vetoed -- a symbolic victory at best -- is a prime example of why Congressional approval ratings are so low.)

Helfenbein, whose organization represents companies like VF Corp, PVH and New Balance, described the political drama around TPA and TPP as "a sitcom that can potentially be recast as a dramatic play" in a column for The Hill.

The longtime apparel industry executive also says the critics are wrong when they claim TPA would cede too much of the legislative branch's authority to the executive. "Who invented TPA? Congress," he says. "Every President [since 1974] has had it. It didn't renew in 2008 so we need to renew it because you can't have 435 people in the House and 100 people in the Senate negotiating a trade deal. Congress must grant that authority."

He further notes the Congress will still have an opportunity (and right) to vote on and trade deal the President makes. "They can still shoot it down," he says.

The real tragedy here is President Obama's public spat with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and other members of his party largely obscured the debate over the TPP itself, which would create a trading bloc encompassing 40% of the global economy. In addition to the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Mexico, Japan and Canada have committed to the TPP.

Critics say TPP would expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) model that has "spurred massive U.S. trade deficits and job loss, downward pressure on wages, unprecedented levels of inequality and new floods of agricultural imports," as Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog group, declared.

Helfenbein is an unabashed supporter of TPP and believes it will benefit America. "If we don't trade we're not going to grow," he says. "Do we hunker down and do nothing or do we go out and see what's in the world?"

The Congressional Research Service, which provides nonpartisan analysis to the nation's lawmakers, has a detailed breakdown of the economics of TPP.  Some highlights:

  • The TPP would be the largest U.S. FTA (free trade agreement) by trade flows ($727 billion in U.S. goods exports and $882 billion in imports in 2014), and the TPP negotiators have expressed their intent to achieve a "comprehensive and high-standard" FTA that will broadly liberalize regional trade and investment.
  • Japan is the largest economy and largest trading partner in TPP negotiations without an existing FTA with the U.S. Malaysia and Vietnam also stand out among the TPP countries without existing U.S. FTAs, both in terms of their current trade and investment with the United States and their potential for future growth
  • Most recent data show modest net gains for the United States in all TPP scenarios. A report by the Peterson Instiitute projects the U.S. manufacturing sector to experience a $44 billion drop in total welfare from baseline, and the agriculture and mining sectors to see a combined near-zero increase. However, the services sector is projected to see welfare gains of more than $79 billion, offsetting the negative impact on manufacturing. (A 2014 paper co-authored by a Purdue University economist makes similar conclusions, projecting U.S. annual welfare gains by 2025 of $33 billion above a baseline, only slightly lower than the Peterson outlook.)
  • A  2013 paper by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), which focuses on median wage impact rather than total welfare. Author David Rosnick suggests that at best, TPP will have a near-zero impact on U.S. median wages by 2025 and may be directly responsible for a 0.6% drop in U.S. median wage.

I could go on (and the Congressional Research Service does) but can you believe how the White House put out the names of the Democratic Senators who met with the President on Tuesday to discuss TPA? And how about that Ranger game last night? Bread and circus people, bread and circus.

Aaron Task is Editor-at-Large of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at atask@yahoo-inc.com.