Tens of thousands of U.S. workers displaced by foreign competition face being excluded from a program to help them because of congressional disputes over federal spending and the administration's trade policy.
Expansions to the half-century-old Trade Adjustment Assistance program incorporated in the 2009 economic stimulus act expired Saturday after efforts to extend them were rebuffed in the House of Representatives and Senate this past week. Of the 400,000 workers certified to receive TAA services since the stimulus act passed two years ago, 170,000 might not have been eligible under the old, pre-2009 criteria, according to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
The program has provided retraining and financial aid to trade-displaced workers since 1962. It was significantly enlarged two years ago. Eligibility was extended to displaced service and government workers and farmers. Funds were added for retraining and subsidies were increased to help displaced workers keep their health insurance. In addition, communities hit hard by trade became eligible for aid.
White House economic adviser Gene Sperling estimated that 155,000 Americans will lose access to the job training if the expanded program isn't continued. "Now is not the time to turn our backs on those who are trying hard to be part of a 21st century American work force," he said.
Lacking the votes to pass it, Republicans leaders in the House last Tuesday pulled a bill that would have extended both the expanded TAA benefits and a law that provides trade benefits to several South American nations. On Thursday, Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic attempt to bring the package to the floor. It's not clear if they will try again in the coming week.
"We are just turning our backs on those workers who have lost their jobs not through their own doing," said Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, after the Republicans objected to considering the bill.
Extending the post-2009 benefits through July would cost some $220 million. To pay for it, the House bill reduced funding for a future TAA-based community college program.
Some Democrats aren't happy with that funding source, but the main objections to TAA, which has long had bipartisan support and backing from both unions and business groups, come from Republican conservatives.
The House Republican Study Committee said TAA duplicates other federal programs, that the government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers and that, compared to other displaced workers, the benefits going to trade-affected workers are overly generous.
Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff and trade expert for the AFL-CIO labor federation, disagreed. "If anything, it's not generous enough," Lee said. The benefits and training offered by TAA are "what any civilized and wealthy society like the United States should be willing to provide."
The RSC complaints were echoed by the conservative Club for Growth, a pro-business group which supports deep cuts in government spending to reduce the federal budget deficit, in urging lawmakers to reject the bill. "Our country can neither afford this program, nor should the government be in the business of providing such a benefit," it said.
Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, in objecting to Senate consideration of TAA renewal, said the expiring provisions were part of the "failed stimulus package which most members on this side of the aisle strenuously opposed for very sound reasons."
Still, Republicans are using TAA as leverage to prod the Obama administration to speed up action on pending free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp said Friday that without action by July 1 on the three agreements, other trade measures such as TAA will be "in limbo, and American workers will suffer as a result."
It's not the first time TAA has been used as a political football. Democrats, generally suspicious of free trade accords, have in the past linked support for such accords to support for the job training program. In 2007, House passage of a free trade agreement with Peru was closely linked to a TAA extension bill.