- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

A Department of Labor worker-retraining program has a poor record of helping people whose jobs are lost to free trade, but Senate politics will guarantee its renewal this year, according to observers and members of Congress.
The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, says trade adjustment assistance (TAA) has major flaws. Labor unions, in theory the program's major clientele, agree with the GAO. And Senate Republicans last week began criticizing plans to expand it.
But Democrats, a bare majority in the Senate, support TAA. They want its approval before they will vote for new presidential trade-negotiating authority, a major Bush administration priority.
"Simply put, we are at a crossroads on trade," said Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who heads the Finance Committee. "If we want to move forward on trade, we have to find the middle ground [on the program]."
The program, which was created in 1962 and cost $407 million last fiscal year, gives support to workers and communities who can prove their livelihoods are disrupted by free-trade policies. It finances their retraining and pays for job-search services to find new employment.
The Reagan administration tried and failed to kill the program in the early 1980s. To the chagrin of its critics, the program was expanded to pave the way for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
Though they acknowledge the program's shortcomings, most observers say the federal government should help workers adjust to free trade and that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
"It's a small price to pay for achieving a new bipartisan commitment to trade, the benefits of which are staggeringly higher than the costs of TAA," said Steve Clemons, vice president of the New American Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. "[But] these are decent things to do for those on the negative side of the overall positive trade equation."
But currently, the drive for the program is as much politics as substance.
Trade-negotiating powers know as "fast-track" would allow President Bush to cut new trade deals and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote in which no amendments would be allowed. He needs the legislation to created a huge free-trade area for North and South America and to complete new negotiations in the World Trade Organization.
The House passed fast-track in December by one vote, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, has insisted that Republicans agree to authorize and expand TAA before fast-track comes up for a vote.
In the most comprehensive look at the program to date, the GAO conducted a study of six communities, from North Carolina to California, that used it in the 1990s. It found numerous inefficiencies in the program. It also pointed out that worker retraining does not solve the problem when no new jobs are available.
As a result, many workers found only lower-paying service jobs after using the TAA program.
"These communities had relied on low-skilled manufacturing jobs, which are disappearing, and now face the difficult task of diversifying their economies," the GAO wrote.
Organized labor supports the program, but has only complaints about it. At a Senate Finance Committee hearing last year, the former president of the United Steelworkers of America, George Becker, presented a long list of criticisms about inadequate funding and how the program is structured.
Mr. Becker added that TAA would not curb labor's opposition to fast-track.
"We are going to fight it with everything we have got," he said.
Republicans who have supported the program recently introduced a broadside against the Democratic plan for expanding it.

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