WASHINGTON -- The House passed a bill Thursday to help workers displaced by the trade deals Congress just gave President Barack Obama the power to sign, but it's a bitter consolation for Democrats who think the White House should have gotten much more.
The Trade Adjustment Assistance program -- passed as part of a larger trade preferences bill on a vote of 286 to 138 -- will spend about $450 million a year to retrain workers whose jobs are destroyed by free trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama is expected to finish soon.
“The reason we need TAA is because we have lousy trade deals that end up with the loss of a lot of American jobs. I’d rather have a good trade deal than a bad trade deal with TAA," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told The Huffington Post in an interview earlier this week, summing up the feelings of many Democrats who tried to block the fast-track trade powers that Obama won this week.
Democrats have typically backed the program, but not always enthusiastically, deriding something that wouldn't be needed if federal trade policy hadn't killed the jobs in the first place. The program is often seen as a salve for trade deals that are beloved by corporate America but despised by labor, and it's seen as only marginally effective.
"Understand what TAA is. It's like funeral insurance, it's basically what they give you when the floor collapses from underneath you," McGovern said.
But it is something Democrats can offer to laid-off workers. And even there, Democrats feel like Obama came up short. The amount of money to fund the program, which will expire in six years, even as the trade deals go on, is an annual amount that is less than half the $986 million the administration asked for in its budget for 2016. It's also much less than the $658 million that Congress passed for this year.
And that's just the first layer of disappointment. Democrats think the focus on mitigating damage to middle-class workers shifts talk away from building a better base to advance their interests.
"I think the better discussion is, How do we create more jobs in this country?" McGovern said. "How do we create more opportunity, rather than, ‘Oh we’ll help you out indirectly when a factory shuts down in your district or in your state and leaves to go to Malaysia or Vietnam’ or whatever. We ought to have insisted on getting more to help working people in this country."
That is yet another disappointment for Obama's party when it comes to his trade agenda.
Democrats said over and over again that the administration was not listening to them during the trade battle, not taking their concerns into account, and not doing enough to win concessions on Democratic priorities from Republicans who fervently support trade deals.
At one point earlier this month when Democrats stalled fast-track, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested that linking a strong transportation and infrastructure spending bill to the trade package could win over Democrats who like the guaranteed jobs that come with such measures.
"I am a bit disappointed that the White House isn’t demanding more, like a highway bill for example, or legislation that will help lift people out of poverty, or any other kind of job creation bill," McGovern said. "We ought to be getting something if we’re going down this road of this trade deal that will probably result in a lot of middle, average Americans losing their jobs."
"I would have liked the president to stand with us to get more, rather than strike a deal with the Republicans." he added. "What’s frustrating to me is that we can do so much better. I can appreciate that the president wants a trade deal. But given who he is, I think he could’ve gotten a better trade deal."
The latest trade bill should be signed soon by Obama, but the dissatisfaction of Democrats such as McGovern suggests they will fight Obama hard again when he starts unveiling the currently secret trade pacts, even if fast-track means the deals cannot be amended and are guaranteed to get simple majority votes.
"When it comes to trade bills, I’m not going to be a cheap date," McGovern said. "I’m not going to take whatever the White House tells me to take. The people that I care the most about are the people in this country who are struggling, those in the middle and those struggling to get in the middle. I feel like this whole conversation ignores them."
Watch McGovern above.