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Reforms offer economic boost

The economic news remains dreadful: Stock markets, credit ratings and consumer confidence are all plunging. Worse yet, the administration has few tools available to reverse the trend. New stimulus spending is politically impossible, and interest rates are already at rock bottom.

But two useful moves could be made now that, over time, would improve America's job picture and economic health. One is to pass three trade agreements -- with South Korea, Panama and Colombia -- that have been languishing on Capitol Hill for years. The other is to reform immigration laws and make it easier for foreign-born entrepreneurs to live and work, invest and invent, in this country.

Both actions would improve our competitive position in an increasingly global marketplace, and neither would cost taxpayers anything. So what's the holdup? Ideology and ignorance, with a dose of politics thrown in.

It is a matter of faith (not fact) in some quarters that freer trade and immigration cost Americans jobs, but every economic study says the exact opposite is true. These policies create jobs, while providing low-cost goods for American families and increasing their standard of living.

Moreover, trade and immigration reform could potentially loosen the partisan paralysis now gripping Washington. Both are backed by the Obama administration while also appealing to a core Republican constituency: organized business.

Start with the trade pacts. Most unions oppose them and insist that any deal must be combined with extension of a program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which compensates workers whose jobs have been lost to foreign competition. For far too long, Democrats bowed to these demands, Republicans opposed them and the trade deals went nowhere.

Finally, earlier this month, Senate leaders agreed on a "path forward" to break the impasse. When Congress comes back in September, lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the trade measures. A separate vote would be held on extending TAA, and in an age of austerity, this is one of those government programs that probably should be eliminated. But if keeping it alive, at about $1 billion a year, means passing the trade deals, the bargain is worth it. Economists estimate the three measures could boost the economy by $15 billion and support 250,000 jobs.

The Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank that often sides with labor, made the case for passage in a recent policy paper: "A trio of trade agreements now pending before Congress would benefit the United States both economically and strategically (by boosting) U.S. exports significantly, especially in the key automotive, agricultural and commercial services sectors."

There's no time to waste because other countries are making deals and increasing their market share while Washington dithers. On July 1, a trade pact went into effect that drops tariffs between South Korea and the European Union, and later this month, Colombia and Canada will implement a similar agreement.

Urgency also exists in the area of immigration. For the first time, America is losing some of the world's best young minds to other countries because it is so painfully difficult for them to obtain visas and residence permits here.

"The fact is that many very talented people with choices don't want to go through the hassle of the U.S. visa system," writes James P. Dougherty of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is viewed as unfriendly, long and unpredictable." Robert Greifeld, the head of NASDAQ, a stock exchange specializing in high-tech issues, told Congress that his member companies viewed government immigration policy as "a legitimate threat to their businesses."

The Obama administration recently agreed to ease several regulations that make life difficult for foreign-born entrepreneurs, but a lot more still needs to be done. As Richard Herman, author of "Immigrant, Inc.," puts it: "Research demonstrates that immigrants are driving the creation of startups and innovation. We have treated immigrant entrepreneurs like dirt -- but they are golden job-creators."

He offers some statistics to back up his claim: More than half the companies in Silicon Valley -- including Google, PayPal and YouTube -- were founded by immigrants. And in 2010, immigrant entrepreneurs created 30 percent of all new businesses in America.

Opposition to trade and immigration reform is often rooted in fear -- fear that the United States cannot compete in the world, fear that foreigners are changing our culture and stealing our jobs. These voices of timidity are wrong. We can compete -- and win -- against anybody. But national policy has to play to our strengths. It has to unleash the American spirit, not suffocate it under a blanket of protectionist and nativist nonsense.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.