WASHINGTON — The House passed a legislative package on Thursday that includes a worker assistance program and trade preference deals, bringing to a close a months-long contentious battle that gave President Obama a hard-won framework to advance his trade agenda.
The measure passed on a vote of 236 to 138. It contains Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that helps workers displaced by imports, and trade measures that renew or extend benefits to sub-Saharan African countries, Haiti and other developing nations.
The approval of TAA was an about-face for House Democrats who just two weeks earlier defeated the worker assistance program in a bid to derail presidential Trade Promotion Authority, with which it was linked. TAA offers eligible workers job training, search and relocation allowances, as well as income support and assistance with health care premium costs.
House and Senate Republican leaders in coordination with the White House devised a new plan to resurrect the trade agenda after it stalled in the House. They separated TPA from TAA and put both measures to separate votes in the House and Senate. The House approved a stand-alone TPA bill last week and the Senate passed TPA on Wednesday, sending the critical measure to the president’s desk.
TPA is seen as vital to completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal between the U.S. and 11 countries and a catalyst to advancing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations between the U.S. and European Union. Under TPA, Congress can set negotiating objectives and consultation requirements for the executive branch, but it is also limited to an up or down vote on trade deals. It is seen as a vital tool for trade negotiations because it allows foreign governments to make their best offers knowing Congress cannot tear apart a final deal.
Once enacted, TPA will set the stage for what is expected to be a rancorous debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Congress if negotiators are able to forge a deal. The Senate also passed TAA, which was paired with the preferences package this time around, on Wednesday.
The industry hailed the final passage of TPA as well as the trade package. The measure extends the African Growth & Opportunity Act for a decade, retroactively renews the expired Generalized System of Preferences program through 2017 and extends trade benefits in the HOPE and HELP programs for products from Haiti through September 2025.
A coalition of 650 organizations, including Levi Strauss & Co., Gap Inc., Claire’s Stores, Michael Kors Inc., Coach Inc., Macy’s Inc., the Retail Industry Leaders Association, National Retail Federation, American Apparel & Footwear Association. U.S. Fashion Industry Association and Outdoor Industry Association sent a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday, urging support for the preference programs.
“Together, these three programs form the bedrock of U.S. trade policy toward developing countries,” the coalition stated. “Enacting a long-term renewal now ensures that Haiti, like African countries under AGOA, does not lose crucial trade and investment opportunities because of the threat of a pending expiration.”
The coalition estimated that since GSP expired in July 2013, U.S. companies have had to pay higher taxes to the tune of $2 million a day or nearly $1.3 billion overall. The GSP program provides duty-free benefits for more than 5,000 types of products from 122 designated countries and territories. While the entire GSP program does not cover most apparel and textile imports to the U.S., it does cover accessories, such as jewelry, and the new legislation that was just approved, would make eligible for consideration textile and leather travel goods.
Renewing GSP and refunding tariffs that have been paid on eligible imports during its expiration “would have an immediate positive impact on U.S. jobs and competitiveness,” the coalition said.
The trade preference package also contains provisions that would create new and separate classifications in the tariff schedule on a long list of “recreational performance outerwear” that companies and industry groups hope will eventually lead to lower tariffs on those imported products. Another provision would make textile and leather travel goods “eligible for consideration” to the GSP program.