, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The politics of currency manipulation, which are strongly influencing Congress’ views of President Obama’s prospective Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, just keeps getting more and more interesting.  So do policy moves surrounding the issue. The bottom line:  Both new Senate Finance Committee chair Orrin Hatch and the Obama administration seem to be stepping up efforts to snooker Congress and the public on measures to safeguard American businesses and their employees against this exchange-rate protectionism.

Hatch is drafting new Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation along with his House Ways and Means counterpart Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and both will have major says over whether the Pacific trade deal and the negotiating authority critical to its approval will pass Congress. And he’s definitely trying to pose as a public servant completely alert to currency threats.

Just look at the widely reported speech the Utah Republican gave on trade at the end of last month. He blasted President Obama for “pretending these [currency] concerns don’t exist” and proudly declared that “we included within our TPA bill, for the first time, a new principal negotiating objective addressing currency manipulation.”

But upon closer inspection, it’s clear that Hatch’s definition of “meaningful” is a low bar. So far he has simply stated, “We need to see commitments from our partners in ongoing trade negotiations to avoid manipulating exchange rates to gain an unfair competitive advantage over other parties to the agreement, a standard reflecting commitments parties have made in the International Monetary Fund.” In other words, Hatch appears to be pushing language in this fast track legislation that merely urges the president’s trade negotiators to try their best to deal with the issue. Worse, it sounds like he would be satisfied with promises from other TPP signatories that they already have often broken whenever they have believed their interests dictate.

In fact, Hatch made no reference in his address to inserting enforceable disciplines against currency manipulation in the TPP. Given the likelihood that the agreement will include a dispute-resolution process giving a major role to countries with a demonstrable fondness for manipulation, such rules are shaky bets at best to safeguard American businesses and their employees against exchange-rate protectionism. But it’s revealing that Hatch seems unwilling even to support this inadequate measure.

At the same time, Hatch’s apparent double-talk on currency manipulation shouldn’t be a surprise. Back in 2005, when the Senate was considering a bill to enable Washington better respond to currency manipulation unilaterally by using U.S. Trade law mechanisms, Hatch supported the legislation – on a vote that was wholly procedural. The bill’s own sponsors eventually withdrew it following (eventually broken) administration promises to increase pressure on China. In 2011, when the Senate took up a similar bill in final form, Hatch flip-flopped and voted “Nay.”

Not that Hatch is looking like Washington’s only currency manipulation phony. President Obama reportedly has told House Democrats that adding the issue to the TPP would be “complicated.” Yet he has also staunchly opposed dealing with foreign currency protectionists unilaterally – in the form of the aforementioned 2011 bill. Moreover, although U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has been testifying under oath to Congress that currency issues are the Treasury Department’s province and that Secretary Jack Lew is raising these matters in international fora like the Group of 7 major economies and the International Monetary Fund, journalists keep reporting the opposite.

In October, according to a New York Times piece, Lew and the rest of the administration, along with the Federal Reserve, had decided to accept the lower currency values that inevitably followed foreign central bank monetary easing moves because they were needed to stoke growth overseas. Just yesterday, the Financial Times reported that this enabling of foreign currency manipulation has continued.

The Hatch, Obama, and Froman hokum at least clarify one point. Supporters of U.S. trade policy still don’t think they can steer new agreements through Congress by telling the truth.