It's an Economics 101 lesson that bears repeating: Trade is good. The United States is the world's largest trading nation, supporting more than 11 million jobs. In Baltimore, we understand this as well as anyone — our port provides tangible proof. More than 29 million tons of cargo worth more than $50 billion move through this city every year.
Expanding trade — and negotiating an end to the practice of punitive tariffs being applied to U.S.-made goods — ought to be a high priority. The less trade is encumbered, the more jobs created, the more investment encouraged, the more efficient the global economy. And make no mistake, we no longer live in an era when the U.S. can afford economic isolation.
That's why Congress should grant President Barack Obama greater authority to negotiate a 12-nation trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since 1974, U.S. presidents have generally been granted such "fast track" or "trade promotion" authority to make it easier to finalize international agreements. Granting it to Mr. Obama doesn't authorize the TPP itself, but it would limit the ability of Congress to amend the final product while still preserving lawmakers' right to an up or down vote.
This has long been a controversial subject. Republicans are more inclined to favor such arrangements — both the fact track authority and deals like the TPP — which are also broadly supported by U.S. business groups and farmers. Democrats, lined up with unions and environmental groups, are more likely to oppose them, fearful that trade pacts enable companies to ship jobs overseas, depress wages and sidestep anti-pollution laws.
And while we share many of those concerns — and would certainly withhold support for the TPP (or any other trade agreement) until we have had a chance to scrutinize the details and heard the critiques from opponents — fast track authority as negotiated by Senators Orrin G. Hatch and Ron Wyden as well as Rep. Paul Ryan places some stringent restrictions on Mr. Obama. They include a provision allowing the Senate, on a 60-vote majority, to rescind fast track authority if the proposal fails to meet certain objectives advanced by Congress, which would then be free to alter the pact.
Clearly, Mr. Obama is going to need Republicans and moderate Democrats to rally behind the proposal if it is to advance. Such a bipartisan coalition has been a rarity in Washington. Clearly, it would be strengthened if Republicans could also demonstrate greater interest in the concerns of the potentially vulnerable working class than they have to date — raising the minimum wage, for instance, or committing more resources to help unemployed workers with job training, health care and other benefits.
Will a Pacific trade pact benefit all? Almost certainly not. The nature of free trade is that there are inevitably winners and losers. But those short-term disruptions are tolerable if they are simply represent the cost of breaking down harmful barriers to employers to better position them to flourish and create high-paying jobs. U.S. companies that specialize in high technology, pharmaceuticals, insurance and certain sectors of manufacturing are among those that anticipate a major expansion should the TPP come to fruition.
In a recent conversation with The Sun's editorial board, Ambassador Michael Froman, the U.S. Trade Representative, pointed to the Port of Baltimore shippers that have the most to gain — producers of health products, which face foreign tariffs of up to 30 percent; chemicals, which face up to 35 percent; technology (25 percent); and poultry (40 percent). Maryland-based companies exported $12 billion in goods last year, but how much more would be possible if such barriers were removed?
"Globalization is here," Mr. Froman said. "We are already competing with low wages around the globe. Trade agreements are a response to that."
Given how important imports and exports are to Maryland's economy, it is disturbing to see the reflexive anti-trade politics playing out between Democratic Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen in the state's nascent Senate race. Mr. Van Hollen recently announced his opposition to fast-track authority, and Ms. Edwards criticized him as a late convert to that position. That may play well to the national labor unions the two are courting, but it doesn't make sense for the state they're actually vying to represent.
Foreign trade is a complex business, and not all trade agreements signed by the U.S. have proven as beneficial as their promoters had predicted. But to withhold this important tool from Mr. Obama would be tantamount to rejecting one of the world's largest-ever trade accords sight unseen. Again, it comes down to basic rules of economics. The fewer barriers to trade, the better chance for the invisible hand of the market to produce better products at lower cost, a boon to consumers and to the economy. America needs innovation, not protectionism. Let Mr. Obama negotiate a fair trade deal and then let Congress decide if it passes muster.