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Panama City News Herald: Our View: Free trade for Florida, and U.S.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

“Free trade” is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, it does open borders between countries, “freeing” up businesses to engage in direct trade with more limited regulatory interference, but it is more appropriate to describe our international trade pacts as “agreements.” We negotiate and then finalize the rules by which our companies can do business with those in other countries, working to secure a more level playing field for American goods and services and opening up markets for American products.

It is hard to do this without “fast track” authority, formally known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). Little known or discussed outside of the Washington bubble, TPA is in fact one of the most valuable tools for trade expansion and promotion in this modern global economy. Without it, the United States’ global economic presence will face increased competition in world trade relative to competitors like China, India, Brazil and other fast-growing economies.

What is TPA? TPA is an agreement between Congress and the president on how best to manage passing trade deals through Congress. For generations, these trade deals have been judged so important to our prosperity and security that there was broad bipartisan agreement that they needed their own streamlined rules for consideration and passage in Congress. Without this streamlined process, it is nearly impossible to get trade deals through the minefield of personal preferences and narrow interests at play on Capitol Hill.

Some on the left object to free trade agreements in general, claiming they undermine U.S. workers and don’t do enough to improve the situation of workers abroad (i.e., a U.S. worker can’t compete with someone who will do the same work for a fraction of the money, and we shouldn’t be promoting foreign economies that exploit their workers). While one can be sympathetic to these arguments in the broad sense, they simply do not make sense when it comes to TPA. First, international trade helps boost wages and lower the cost of goods here in the U.S. Both are important factors in middle class prosperity. Florida is undergoing massive improvements to our ports and related logistic facilities, all designed to capture larger market shares of the trade that passes through an expanding Panama Canal and up and down our coastal waters. We need to expand these trade opportunities.

At the same time, free trade agreements allow the U.S. to help set the rules that govern workers in all the countries involved. Raising standards follow increased access to markets, as does consumer demand in those countries for American goods and services. This gives us the opportunity to both level the playing field for U.S. workers and help out our fellow workers abroad.

The benefits of free trade for Florida are unmistakable. In 2013, for example, Florida exported more than $96 billion in goods and services. These exports supported 2.4 million jobs here in Florida at more than 15,000 companies — large, medium and small. In fact, a full 95 percent of Florida exporters are small or mid-sized businesses of 500 or fewer employees.

Ninety-five percent of the world’s population — representing 80 percent of global purchasing power — lives outside of the United States. If we don’t engage these markets and create the best possible environment for our own nation’s businesses and workers, other countries will fill in the gap, and Florida families will lose out.

The entire Florida congressional delegation should put aside partisan and parochial interests and get TPA passed. I hope Rep. (Gwen) Graham, D-Tallahassee, will be a leader on this important issue. The future of Florida’s economy will be enhanced by opening and expanding target markets for our products and our services. Passage of the Congressional Trade Priorities Act is critical to the future growth and expansion of the U.S. global trade efforts, critical to creating lasting jobs and boosting U.S. exports abroad.

Dr. Ed Moore is the president of the Florida Independent Colleges and Universities and member of the Main Street Growth and Opportunity Coalition Steering Committee.

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