Oops: Drafting Error Imperils Trade Adjustment Program for Laid-Off Workers

Mike Elk

Ironically, extension of prominent federal worker retraining program could become contingent on free trade deal passage

Since 1974, the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program (TAA) has provided workers with assistance for trade-related job losses. Now Republicans are holding the program hostage as they demand Congress pass more trade deals like the Columbia and Panama Free Trade Agreement.

The TAA program was established to help workers who lost their jobs due to outsourcing or foreign completion retrain for new jobs. The program provides funding for education programs to retrain the workers and provides enhanced unemployment benefits of up to 156 weeks — longer than the regular unemployment benefits maximum of 99 weeks. During fiscal year 2010, 280,873 workers received assistance from the program for job retraining and education, according to the program’s 2010 report (PDF link).

However, due to a drafting error in the extension of the program, TAA might be eliminated as a program altogether, according to a recent report (subscription required) in Inside U.S. Trade. At the end of 2010 there was a last-minute, frantic rush to extend TAA for workers as part of HR 6517. The language was supposed to say that TAA would be extended for six weeks and if Congress did not act by February 13, TAA would be cut back to its pre-stimulus level of funding and eligibility. (The stimulus bill had increased funding for the program and expanded eligibility to include service workers, not just manufacturing workers affected by job loss.) 

However, because of a drafting error, the language instead says that unless Congress acts by February 13, TAA for workers will be completely eliminated all together. 

According to the Inside U.S. Trade article, Republicans in Congress see an opportunity to hold the TAA program hostage in exchange for their hopes that President Obama will push not only the South Korea Free Trade Agreement but the Colombia and Panama Free Trade Agreements as well. Supported by the White House and the United Auto Workers, the South Korea Free Trade Agreement has a much higher likelihood of passage.

However, organized labor has long opposed the Colombia Free Trade because of Colombia’s track record of killing union activists. Many in Congress are also opposed to the Panama Free Trade Agreement because Panama is one of the largest tax havens in the world.

Republicans have called for bundling all three treaties together for passage. However, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has announced that the Obama administration is going to push the South Korea Free Trade Treaty separately from the Colombia and Panama treaties. Some political observers believe the administration is hesitant to combine the treaties because strong opposition to the Colombia and Panama deals would then imperil the Korea treaty.

With the possibility of Republicans holding the TAA program hostage, however, it is more likely that the administration might combine all three treaties together in order to save this important program. If the Obama Tax Cuts deal in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits is an indicator, Democrats could be forced into a deal like this in order to save TAA worker assistance.

It’s truly awful. We obviously want TAA benefits, but we don’t want to see American jobs shipped offshore,” says Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of Citizens Trade Campaign. It’s important to extend the program to everyone. It shouldn’t come at the expense of passing yet another job killing bill that puts those same workers out of work.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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