Washingtonians need Pacific free trade pact

If you live in Washington, your community depends on international trade.

The state exported an estimated $90 billion worth of goods last year, according to the feds, and exports supported more than 390,000 jobs. Many of those are high-wage union jobs — Boeing machinists, for example, and longshore workers at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle.

The state is home to at least 12,000 exporters, most of them small- to medium-sized businesses. Per capita, Washington benefits more from trade than any other state.

As the fight over proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership heats up in Congress, Washington’s congressional representatives should make sure they stand with the real economic interests of their constituents. That translates into support for fast-track negotiating authority for President Obama, without which he can’t finalize this potentially rich trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

Fast track would limit Congress to an up-or-down vote on the pact; members couldn’t attach amendments. Without it, U.S. negotiators can’t commit to the terms of a treaty. Many Democrats are fighting to deny fast-track authority to their own president, largely at the behest of unions. By killing fast track, they can prevent the TPP from coming to a vote.

Most of their arguments are actually gripes about the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement of 1993. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, goes one trope, is “NAFTA on steroids.”

Even the complaints about NAFTA — an agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico — are overwrought. NAFTA-bashers talk as if it were to blame for every manufacturing job the United States lost since it took effect in 1994.

But other things happened after 1994, including an ordinary recession, the Great Recession and an enormous expansion of competition from China and other Asian nations. NAFTA makes a handy scapegoat, but few economists imagine that it drove the decline of American manufacturing over the last 20 years.

NAFTA did fall short on labor and environmental protections. That fact hasn’t been lost on Barack Obama and his negotiating team.

The president insists that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will protect collective-bargaining rights and demand workplace safety in the other countries expected to sign it: Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Malaysia, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, Brunei, Singapore and Peru.

The pact is also supposed to enact safeguards against overfishing, illegal logging and wildlife trafficking.

The TPP does have one clear connection to NAFTA, though: The new treaty’s labor and environmental provisions would be applied to Canada and Mexico. In that respect, the 12-nation pact would be a corrective to NAFTA.

One factual criticism of the TPP is that it has been negotiated behind closed doors. Of course, it’s hard to think of any other major international treaty — or labor contract, for that matter — that wasn’t negotiated behind closed doors.

The treaty language hasn’t been released yet; when it is released, Congress must scrutinize it carefully.

But the real battle here isn’t over the details; it’s over the concept of a 12-nation Pacific free trade zone. Some welcome that prospect; some fear it. Washington can’t afford to see it disappear.