Republican leaders in the House are struggling to push through a "fast track" bill for trade agreements, which administration officials say is crucial to negotiating good ones. They wouldn't be in this position if representatives from California, whose economy is unusually dependent on trade, lined up behind the bill. Instead, Democrats are largely noncommittal or opposed, while even some Republicans from trade-heavy districts are balking.
California has an enormous and diverse economy, but trade plays an integral role in some of its strongest sectors. The nation's five metropolitan areas with the largest agricultural exports are all in California; four are represented by Democrats who are mum about or hostile to fast track. The situation is much the same in the districts where exports account for the greatest percentage of local income, such as Silicon Valley, and where some of the country's largest ports and freight operations are based.
For example, Democrat Janice Hahn of San Pedro, whose district includes the giant Port of Los Angeles, is opposing the bill because she thinks Congress should be able to amend deals the administration negotiates, rather than simply approving or rejecting them. That approach would effectively prevent the United States from concluding the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership and any other major agreements, even as other global powers are racing to set up their own regional pacts. That's a particular risk in Asia, where the United States is trying to move Pacific nations toward U.S. standards for trade, labor and the environment instead of following China's lead in the other direction.
Meanwhile, key state and local officials are conspicuously silent on the bill, which has drawn opposition from the ideologically odd couple of organized labor and tea party conservatives. Gov. Jerry Brown, whose support could provide political cover for other Democrats, has begged off. The mayor of West Covina found the time last month to sign a letter from the U.S. Conference of Mayors urging the Senate to pass the fast-track bill; the mayor of Los Angeles did not.
For their part, congressional Democrats — many of whom won their seats with the help of organized labor — complain that the bill doesn't demand enough from trade deals on such issues as human rights, currency manipulation and enforcement of environmental and labor regulations. But that's disingenuous. A fast-track measure wouldn't dictate the terms of future trade agreements; it would merely tell the administration what Congress wants to see in them, while reserving the right to deny fast-track treatment to any deal that falls short. Lawmakers would also retain the power to vote down trade agreements they don't like. With so much at stake for California, lawmakers here should join the Obama administration in supporting a bipartisan fast-track bill, then make sure the White House meets the goals they set.