The big trade story in Washington this week is House Democrats’ refusal to go along with the plan laid out by the Administration, Senate, and House Republicans for passage of a group of trade bills—most importantly, a bill to provide a “fast-track” through Congress for trade agreements currently being negotiated by the president. Both Senate leadership and the Administration are now scrambling to find a way to get “fast-track” back on track, along with a bill to extend a government assistance program that helps workers affected by trade agreements to retrain for new jobs.
One aspect of the trade agenda that’s gone little mentioned in the hubbub is the fate of the Trade Preferences Extension Act of 2015. The Act would renew the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which lowers duties for imports from least-developed countries. GSP expired in July 2013; since then, the many American manufacturers and importers that relied on the program have been paying hefty additional tariffs with every import shipment. The trade preferences bill would also extend a trade preference program for African countries, otherwise set to expire in September, as well as providing certain trade benefits to Haiti.
The Senate passed the preference bill in May. The House, for its part, passed the bill last Thursday – just before the collapse of the grand bargain on “fast-track” – but with slightly different funding provisions. Initial reports suggested that the House and Senate would conference quickly to resolve differences in the funding provisions and get the preference bill off to the President. But in the aftermath of Friday’s drama, Senate leadership is pitching a solution that may involve the Senate attaching the worker assistance bill to the preference bill, which would then require another trip through the House.
This plan has its detractors, including, presumably, the many U.S. manufacturers and importers who have been waiting almost two years for GSP renewal. Sadly, they may have to wait a little longer, given the high-stakes game of political hot potato happening on the Hill.