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Guest Editorial: The Comedy of Congress

Thamsanqa Jantjie stood upright as he delivered sign language movements during President Obama’s eulogy for Nelson Mandela. Each of Mr. Jantjie’s symbolic gestures was forthright and energetic, but what did they mean? Surely, you know by now, his language was gibberish. Gesticulations about absolutely nothing.

Think about this: the 113th Congress is in the same place, standing right by President Obama’s side (for the last twelve months), and also talking about nothing.

Seriously, what is the 113th Congress doing for us, the people?

When it comes to the business of U.S. trade relations, they have already won the race to the bottom. Absolutely no Congress in American history has been less productive than this one. The facts are frightening — only twenty-two bills passed up to the August recess, and only fifty-seven bills have passed to date. This is lower than the lowest number anyone thought Congress could achieve, and to make matters worse…they haven’t done a blessed thing for trade. In fact, trade has gone backward.

Here’s a list of three trade agenda items that they didn’t adequately address:

  1. Renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences: it expired 7/31/13.
  2. Renewal of the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill (MTB): it expired 12/31/12.
  3. Renewal of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA): it expired 7/1/2007.

And here’s the “without list” — matching the above:

  1. Without GSP, domestic manufacturers are paying an estimated $2 million a day in taxes for raw materials that they need for their own U.S. production lines.
  2. Without MTB, U.S. manufacturers are paying significantly higher tax on essential inputs that are not available in the U.S., running up losses of about $600 million in this calendar year.
  3. Without TPA, the President will never be able to get the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) on a fast track for passage.

There are always those who say, “who cares about trade?” However, the facts speak for themselves. As a country, we are simply not able to grow the economy without participating in renewed efforts to stimulate international trade. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the last sixty-six years has averaged 3.23%, and we are not even close to that number now.

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What does this mean?

First of all, GDP is measured by personal consumption, government spending, business spending and exports (less imports). Essentially it’s the reported “market value” of goods produced in a country.

If the U.S. average has been 3.23%, then where are we?

In 2010, we were at 2.77% (real) GDP growth rate, in 2011 we were at 2.01%, in 2012 we were at 1.95%, and this year is still to be determined — but it is projected to be 1.6% real GDP growth.

Anyone see a trend here? Reality is speaking to us at the same time that fantasy is setting in, much in the same way Mr. Jantjie gesticulated.

The tale of the tape is dismal.

If we can’t trade, we can’t grow. Someone needs to do something.

There are those in Congress who do get the message on trade (and we are proud of them), but there are members that just don’t understand the issues, don’t want to listen and are seemingly clueless about trade. They believe trade causes the loss of American jobs, when actually it just reshuffles the deck, bringing in new industry and renewed opportunity.

Someone needs to ring the bell in Congress…….if we truly care about the economic well-being of our country, then we need to care about trade. May 2014 be a better “trade year” than 2013.

rickRick Helfenbein is President of TellaS Ltd (Luen Thai USA) and Vice Chairman of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. He is a strong advocate of a robust US Trade Agenda and often lectures on the subject of supply chain and international trade at prestigious universities around the country. He participates annually in the Consortium for Operational Excellence in Retailing at Harvard University and the Wharton School of Business.