By  on October 25, 2007

WASHINGTON — The House Ways and Means Committee passed a bill Wednesday that would overhaul and expand a federal program aiding workers who lose their jobs because of international trade.

The Trade and Globalization Assistance Act would reauthorize the Trade Adjustment Assistance program for five years. The program, part of a 10-year, $8.7 billion funding package, provides training, unemployment insurance, health coverage and other benefits to displaced workers, according to a spokesman for the House committee.

Lawmakers have argued that the program, established by Congress in 1962, does not address the evolving impact of international trade or cover enough workers. But there is little consensus between Democrats and Republicans on how to revamp it.

The House bill, cosponsored by Ways and Means chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), would extend benefits to more workers, including service sector employees, and establish certifications for industries and communities affected by factory closures because of trade.

Rangel said many of his constituents, as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill, were opposed to trade agreements because so many displaced workers could not find new careers.

"Once communities go through this, they [believe] trade is not a friendly vehicle," Rangel said, adding that the bill should help allay those fears.

The legislation would initially double funding for retraining programs to $440 million from $220 million a year and increase to $660 million in 2010. It would also expand the trade aid program to include service workers who lose their jobs because of international competition, cover workers whose firms shift production to China and India — the current program primarily covers those whose firms move to countries with which the U.S. has trade agreements — include a vehicle for expanding assistance for industries and provide assistance to entire communities hit hard by job losses.

The initiative has been widely used by apparel and textile manufacturers. From fiscal 2004 to 2006, about 400,000 workers were certified for benefits, though not all actually used such services, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the program. Almost 77,000 of those receiving certification worked for apparel and textile producers.

"The program clearly needs to be fixed, but the bigger problem is that we are continuing to lose jobs to countries that subsidize their currency and local industries, like China," said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. "It is far better to help our workers keep good-paying jobs than to provide temporary assistance while they have to transfer to lower-paying jobs or no jobs at all."The bill will head to the full House for a vote. It must also make its way through the Senate.

Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), chairman of the finance committee, has introduced his own legislation aimed at revamping the program. Complicating matters, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who has called for linking an overhaul to renewing the president's trade promotion authority, plans to introduce a separate domestic trade aid bill.

Past expansions of the program in Congress have included provisions giving the president trade promotion authority, also known as "fast track," which allows the president to negotiate trade deals that cannot be amended by Congress. Democrats, who have railed against President Bush's trade agenda, refused to renew that authority when it expired June 30.

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