Barone is Right: Appeasing Protectionists Is a Bad Idea

President Obama is finally sending three pending trade agreements — with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama — to Congress for a vote. The three trade deals were ready for this moment before Obama entered the White House. So what’s taken so long?

Quite simply, as Michael Barone notes in his Washington Examiner column today, the president wanted to avoid angering his political allies in organized labor.

[Obama] could have sent [the treaties] 985 days earlier; negotiations were completed in 2006 and 2007. Or, if he were concerned they’d be deep-sixed when his fellow Democrats controlled Congress, he could have sent them 274 days earlier when Republicans took over the House.

To be sure, they are opposed by many labor union leaders and congressional Democrats. There is a nostalgia among many union and party old-timers for the days, more than 30 years distant, when the auto and steel workers’ unions had nearly 2 million members.

Now each has less than half a million. But the old-timers seem to feel that somehow something like those olden days can be brought back if they oppose FTAs.

Indeed. In the new CEI OnPoint, “Free Trade without Apology,” CEI Adjunct Fellow Fran Smith and former CEI Research Associate Nick DeLong document how  efforts at appeasing organized labor — in the hopes of blunting union opposition to trade deals — have been not only ineffective, but harmful.

Union leaders have taken all concessions they’ve been offered only to ask for more. This has led to trade agreements becoming weighted down with provisions governing labor and environmental issues (to appease environmentalists) which have nothing to do with trade. And those provisions have only gotten longer and more onerous in each subsequent agreement.

Organized labor’s success in getting labor issues included in trade negotiations is a relatively recent phenomenon. The 1985 U.S.-Israel free trade agreement was the last American trade deal that did not include labor and environmental provisions. Since that time, the U.S. has entered into 10 free trade agreements covering 17 countries.

Eight years after the Israel agreement, the Clinton administration, as part of a deal to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), pushed Mexico and Canada to sign the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) and North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) as side letters to the trade pact. That was the first time that labor and environmental objectives were directly linked to international trade negotiations. From that point onward, interest groups of various stripes have lobbied hard to include a host of irrelevant political agendas in trade negotiations. Organized labor and environmental groups have been especially active in this effort.

The NAFTA labor provisions were still not enough to satisfy Big Labor. Four years after the labor cooperation agreement was passed, the AFL-CIO stated in a public comment that the agreement had been “ineffective in promoting the concerns of workers beset by stagnant wages and job insecurity.” Rather than appease, the NAFTA labor provisions only whetted the union leaders’ appetites. To this day, unions continue to pressure Congress for more stringent labor obligations in current and future agreements.

It’s time to end this game, which only advantages protectionist lobbies.

For more on trade, see here and here.