In 2002, both of Georgia’s Democratic senators voted to give President George W. Bush “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals. In 2015, both of Georgia’s Republican senators voted to give President Barack Obama the same.
If there’s one thing that historically has produced bipartisanship, it’s free trade. And if there’s one state that ought to understand why, it’s Georgia.
High on Obama’s remaining to-do list is completing a trade deal with 11 other countries around the Pacific rim. Markets such as Japan and Australia would be more open to American-made products, while their products would be more accessible to American consumers. Tearing down trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas allows companies to compete on their own merits. Over time, that has helped more of our companies and workers than it has hurt.
Our state is particularly well-positioned to benefit from a trans-Pacific trade deal. We still make and grow things, and our position as the crossroads of the Southeast means we benefit from imports as well as exports. (Not that imports are a bad thing. But for those keeping score, Savannah’s port has handled more exports than imports in each of the past five years.)
One in 12 Georgia jobs is related to trade, according to data from the Georgia Ports Authority. Federal data indicate more than one-third of our exports already go to the 11 countries negotiating the trans-Pacific deal; that number should only grow once it’s signed.
By far, the best way to liberalize trade is through treaties among many countries at once. That puts more markets on equal legal footing. Otherwise, companies face different trading rules depending on where they’re doing business.
Fast-track authority, which merely allows the president to bring a negotiated deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no amendments, finally passed the Senate late last week without the support of most Senate Democrats, who earlier blocked its path. Some of the obstructionists, led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, sound as if they’re just as interested in exporting our labor and environmental regulations as they are in exporting our goods.
That’s a shame, because Democrats’ track record on trade is solid. The first multilateral trade deals were completed under the Truman administration. The “Kennedy round” of talks brought many more countries into the global trading system, eliminating tens of billions of dollars in tariffs. Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Now, however, Hillary Clinton seems willing to kowtow to the populist Warren wing of the party. So much for the “reality-based community.” Trade deals aren’t going to go away; the question is whether the U.S. will participate in them.
China is eager to expand its own network of friendly trading nations. The European Union, itself a free-trade zone, has been signing its own series of deals. A trans-Atlantic trade deal between the U.S. and the EU is also in the works, another agreement Georgians should support; our firms last year shipped $7.6 billion in goods, or 19 percent of the state’s exports, to Europe.
From kaolin to cotton, poultry to paper, carpet to chemicals, Georgia’s industries are competitive. We haven’t lost our edge. Let’s hope Congress hasn’t lost its nerve.