WASHINGTON – Congress is getting close to striking an agreement that would let President Obama negotiate a new free-trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations, but voices of concern are emerging from Western New York lawmakers – most surprisingly, Rep. Chris Collins.
Normally a pro-business Republican, the congressman from Clarence is bucking some of his big political backers, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, in opposing the emerging trade deal.
And he said he’s doing it because of a lesson he learned when he invested in now-defunct Buffalo China Corp.: that free trade is not necessarily fair trade.
Collins led an investment group that revived shuttered Buffalo China in 2004, rebranding it as Niagara Ceramics and hiring workers at lower wages than Buffalo China had offered. But then Chinese competitors undercut Niagara Ceramics’ prices by 20 percent, Collins said, eventually driving the company out of business.
Because of that experience, Collins said, he fears that any trade deal that doesn’t address issues of currency manipulation could be a bad thing for jobs in America.
“Others who haven’t led the life I’ve led and had the experiences I had are tempted to think that anything we do that might expand exports is a good thing,” Collins said.
“But they’re forgetting the reverse side of it.”
At issue is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, an agreement that Obama hopes to strike that will lower trade barriers between the United States and Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
“Estimates are that the TPP could provide $77 billion a year in real income and support 650,000 new jobs in the U.S. alone,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said earlier this year.
What’s more, an agreement allowing Obama to negotiate the trade deal with “fast-track” authority – which would subject the pact to only an up-or-down vote in Congress, with no amendments allowed – looks to be close to a rare done deal uniting the Democratic president and the Republican-led Congress.
“We are in the closing stages of finalizing the legislation,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said in Japan on Thursday, according to Associated Press. “We anticipate passing this legislation this spring.”
Hearing that, both Collins and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said Thursday that they plan to vote no.
Like some others who oppose the measure, Collins thinks that it should be used to pressure China to stop manipulating its currency in ways that benefit its own manufacturers, even though China isn’t part of the Pacific trade pact.
“The secret executive branch negotiations on massive trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership will hurt American workers and businesses by excluding important provisions to combat currency manipulation,” he said. “It is because of the hardworking Western New Yorkers struggling for a fair chance at the American Dream that I will oppose granting the president fast-track authority to negotiate free trade agreements.”
Higgins said he is opposed, too, given the rough ride that free trade has given to American manufacturers.
“The TPP expands on the World Trade Organization model, and nearly five million American manufacturing jobs have been lost over time since the implementation of that agreement,” Higgins noted – adding that 16,000 American manufacturers have shut down since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada 20 years ago.
Given that history, Higgins said he’s worried that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will likewise send American jobs overseas.
“I’m in favor of free trade so long as there is a level playing field, but there never is,” Higgins said.
New York’s two Democratic senators didn’t sound very excited about granting Obama fast-tract negotiating authority, either.
“If fast-track authority leads to a rise in GDP and corporate profits, but a decrease in middle class incomes, then I cannot be for it,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer. “In addition, I won’t support fast track unless a law is enacted that holds countries accountable for currency manipulation.
“China has done more to hurt American jobs than any other country by manipulating their currency, and we cannot give them a free pass to keep doing it.”
Marc Brumer, a spokesman for Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, said Gillibrand “has serious concerns about this proposal and about how previous trade deals have been implemented, many of which have had negative long-term impacts on Upstate New York manufacturing jobs.”
That left Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, a member of the Ways and Means Committee that will draft the fast-track bill, as its only supporter in the Western New York congressional delegation.
“I have heard from our neighbors and friends on the issue of free trade many times during the numerous town halls we have held across the district,” Reed said.
“Most recognize that a vast majority of the world’s consumers live outside the U.S., and trade agreements must be fair to ensure a level playing field to access those consumers. This would also promote job creation here at home.”