Congress Set To Drop Retraining Program For Workers Harmed By Globalization
Despite the rise of conservative populism, Republicans aren’t interested in Trade Adjustment Assistance.
By Arthur Delaney
WASHINGTON ― A long-standing benefit for workers laid off due to foreign trade will expire this year unless Congress acts — and it looks like Congress is not going to act.
The Trade Adjustment Assistance program, created in 1964, will begin to phase out in July absent an extension of some kind.
It’s a relatively small program that serves just under 100,000 people most years, but it has also served as a statement that Washington cares about blue collar workers whose lives are upended by free trade.
The program’s survival likely hinges on whether lawmakers include it in a bill designed to boost the domestic semiconductor chip industry in order to improve U.S. competitiveness with China.
House Democrats included Trade Adjustment Assistance as part of their competitiveness bill. The more bipartisan Senate version left the program out. Now members from the two chambers are meeting in what’s known as a conference committee to hash out the differences between the two bills.
The populist wing of the Republican Party, which purports to defend regular Americans from globalization, has had nothing to say about the federal program specifically designed for the workers who are most directly affected by globalization.
Supporters are setting low expectations for a continuation of TAA, which connects layoff victims with training, education and wage subsidies for older workers who wind up having to take lower-paying jobs.
“This conference committee has a plate that is full to overflowing,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a proponent of TAA, told HuffPost. “So what stays in and what goes out is a big tangle at this moment.”
“It has one of the longest shots to be included in the final bill,” conference committee member Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), an opponent of TAA, told HuffPost.
The new version of TAA that Democrats envision would cost about $1 billion per year. It’s a small part of the $66 billion House competitiveness bill and would represent less than 0.02% of the federal budget, but lawmakers have been penny pinchers since inflation shot up in the last six months.
“This is not giant gobs of money here,” Roy Houseman, legislative director for the United Steelworkers union, said in an interview. “It is targeted assistance to help people who’ve worked for decades building and manufacturing goods in this country, and oftentimes they need to make a new career or find a glide path to retirement.”
Houseman himself signed up for trade assistance after losing his job at a paper mill in 2009. In response to a petition from the workers at the plant, the U.S. Department of Labor certified that they met the criteria, since they’d been laid off due to increasing “imports of articles like or directly competitive with” the linerboard made at Houseman’s factory.
Houseman’s days of making cardboard boxes were over. With TAA benefits helping pay his bills, he went back to school and in 2012 completed a master’s degree in public administration ― a useful credential for his current position with the Steelworkers. Houseman recalled that some of his former colleagues sought nursing degrees; one pursued a helicopter pilot’s license.
Three-quarters of the mass layoffs that resulted in certified TAA petitions occurred in the manufacturing industry last year, according to the Labor Department’s most recent annual report. Two-thirds of workers who enrolled in training got new jobs within six months, and only one-third of those new jobs were in manufacturing.
Workers who signed up for TAA last year tended to be older, less white and less educated than the broader civilian workforce. Most either saw their jobs outsourced to another country or got laid off due to imports. The vast majority received job counseling, while 40% got occupational training. A quarter received weekly allowances, and 11% benefited from wage supplements for taking lower-paying jobs.
Republicans have a somewhat technical argument against extending trade assistance. They don’t say it’s a bad program, they just say Congress shouldn’t reauthorize the worker benefit if the U.S. is not currently pursuing any new trade deals with other countries. It doesn’t matter that the previous trade deals remain in effect.
“It’s always been connected with trade negotiations,” Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said. “If there is no trade negotiation going on, then TAA is in abeyance until trade negotiations start happening.”
In other words, workers whose jobs get outsourced shouldn’t get trade benefits when the Biden administration has not asked Congress for permission to negotiate a new trade deal.
“It is just no longer tied to a real trade policy,” Brady said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said the trade deal argument shows “how little Republicans have cared about people getting laid off because of bad trade deals and tax policy that encourages jobs to go overseas.”
Democrats themselves have criticized TAA in recent years. Not everyone who signs up gets a job, and most who do get jobs wind up with lower wages. Workers who went through the program wound up earning 80% of their previous wage in 2021.
“It’s fair to say that some of the initiatives in the past haven’t worked the way that they were intended,” House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said. “I’m looking for something that’s much more broad-based.”
Neal championed the House bill’s expanded version of TAA, which would widen eligibility to more categories of layoffs, add a child care allowance and streamline the application process. If trade assistance gets reauthorized, House Democrats would probably have to accept a more modest version of the program.
Senate Republicans want the final bill to make it easier for American companies to get around tariffs imposed on Chinese goods, a trade provision that Democrats could use for leverage.
Official Republican sympathy for factory workers may have peaked in 2016, when President-elect Donald Trump personally intervened to stop an Indiana factory from closing and shifting operations to Mexico. Before Trump intervened, the Labor Department said the workers qualified for TAA; hundreds of workers still ultimately got laid off.
Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a partnership between manufacturers and the United Steelworkers, said the trade assistance debate reveals a political truth.
“A lot of the appeal some Republicans are trying to make to blue collar workers is rhetorical only,” Paul said. “Because [supporting blue collar workers] does take resources and an ability to invest [in] creating a brighter future for workers that have been laid off as a consequence of trade policy.”