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Trade Promotion Authority Vote Shifts Power to Hill | Commentary

Legendary executive management professor and writer Peter Drucker once said leadership is defined by results, not attributes. The trade debate currently occupying much of Washington’s focus shows how right Drucker was — and what that says about where the center of leadership is in Washington today.

At issue is whether to extend Trade Promotion Authority. The Republican Senate has acted and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and the House GOP have demonstrated the leadership necessary to try to produce the votes needed to pass this critical bill. But the legislation’s future is still in question because while President Barack Obama talks a good game, he has confronted difficulties in generating support among many Hill Democrats.

Many Democrats struggle with free-trade agreements, despite the unquestioned benefits open markets have for Americans. The United States currently has 20 trade agreements with all parts of the globe, and we’re currently negotiating more. The reasons are simple: lower prices, higher wages and more exports.

As a former governor of Puerto Rico and an ex-member of Congress, I know firsthand how free-trade agreements help average Americans by cutting the taxes — technically tariffs — they pay on imported goods. Lower tariffs and those goods become less expensive, putting more money into the pockets of American consumers. According to the Business Roundtable, trade policy to lower import tariffs saves the average American family of four more than $10,000 per year.

Free trade lowers prices, and it can help raise wages. According to the Commerce Department, 2014 was a record year when it came to export-supported jobs: More than 11.7 million American jobs were export-supported — including almost 3 million generated by exports to Canada and Mexico. But what stands out about those jobs is they paid wages that were 13 percent to 18 percent higher than non-export supported jobs, according to Commerce statistics.

Finally, free trade opens up more of the world to U.S. exports. Under free-trade agreements, we sell more of what we make well, from agriculture products to cars and from SUVs to pork — yes, pork. According to the National Pork Producers Council, “U.S. exports of pork and pork products have increased by 1550 percent in value and 1268 percent in volume since 1989, the year the U.S. implemented the free trade agreement with Canada and started opening international markets for value-added agriculture products.” That kind of growth across exporting industries supports millions of American jobs.

Extending Trade Promotion Authority to the president can sometimes be a challenge to the party that doesn’t hold the White House. That is particularly true with this White House, as the president has overextended his interpretation of executive authority. But Boehner and House Republicans understand how vital TPA is, and they are committed to complete the job commenced by their colleagues in the Senate and try to pass it. That is the hallmark of leadership and responsible governance in Washington.

Obama has criticized Congress in the past, when his own party ran at least part of it, for failing to pass legislation. Yet now, when the Republican majority in Congress is offering to help pass a bill the president says is vital, he is unable to develop any meaningful support among his party. A minimum level of support is required among Democrats in Congress. The president’s leadership in accomplishing this is imperative. Otherwise, average Americans will pay if he remains unable or unwilling to lead.

Over the past five months, the center of real leadership in Washington has unquestionably become the Republican Congress. Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and their respective leadership teams have passed important legislation, from historic entitlement reform to a budget for the first time in years, and they are ready to do it again on TPA. But divided government requires leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. In this matter, Obama needs to personally exert his authority and produce results.

Luis Fortuño is the former Republican governor of Puerto Rico and member of Congress, and is now a partner in Steptoe & Johnson’s Washington, D.C., law office.

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