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For someone supposed to be a political whiz due to staff experience on Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sure has been acting like a political bungler in explaining to Congress why strong currency manipulation sanctions don’t belong in trade deals like President Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In his April 21 letter to the Senate Finance Committee, Lew both fatally undermined both the president’s insistence that the fast track bill gives Congress meaningful influence on U.S. trade negotiations, and Washington’s (feeble) efforts to end protectionist exchange rate policies abroad.

Lew’s letter, after all, emphasized two arguments. He claimed, “all of the partners consulted have made clear that they will not support the introduction of enforceable currency provisions in the context of trade agreements, and specifically, the TPP.” And he pointed to the administration’s “serious concern that in any trade negotiation other countries would insist that an enforceable currency provision be designed so it could be used to challenge legitimate U.S. monetary policy, an outcome we would find unacceptable.“

Lew’s first point amounts to an admission that Congress can put all the negotiating instructions it wants to in a fast track bill, but that the administration will ignore them if the other TPP countries (or any other countries talking trade with Washington) say they oppose them. Of course, this position not only tells lawmakers they’re kidding themselves. It also tells America’s interlocutors that they have the whip hand in trade talks.

Lew’s second point needlessly hands foreign governments an all-purpose excuse to stonewall Washington’s efforts to eliminate “unfair and inappropriate currency polices [that] have hurt our workers and firms,” as he has labeled them. For now his counterparts need only claim that these measures are no different from America’s own monetary easing.

Especially weird about this Lew argument is that, assuming it’s serious, his own efforts to end these foreign exchange rate policies logically have to be based on a belief that they are clearly different from the Federal Reserve’s moves. Rather than strengthen foreign governments’ positions, why doesn’t he tell Congress, the American people, and U.S. trade rivals what these distinctions are, and urge American lawmakers to add to his bargaining power by linking countermeasures to the trade talks?

One likely answer: Despite official protestations to the contrary, President Obama is ready to accept a bad TPP trade deal over no deal at all. Consequently, Congress has been put squarely on the spot. A senior U.S. official has now openly admitted that its instructions are pointless, and that Mr. Obama’s position on lawmakers’ currency concerns is a matter of choice, not necessity. What better reasons to end the sham of TPP and fast tracking its approval once and for all?

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