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Yes, it’s hard to imagine, but even trade policy activists pushing total overhaul should be grateful to the Cato Institute on at least one count.  The staunchly libertarian think tank, long synonymous with market-extremist positions on trade, has also been usefully tracking votes on the issue by House and Senate members at this website:  http://www.cato.org/research/trade-immigration/congress)  

So thanks to “Free Markets, Free Trade:  Rating the Congress” and its terrific interactive search engine, it’s easy to document that House Republicans have just elected a job-killing trade deal booster – Kevin McCarthy of California  — to replace primaried job-killing trade deal booster Eric Cantor as Leader of the majority caucus. 

Nonetheless, McCarthy could yet shock the trade policy world in his new position.  The key is whether he’ll continue his record (and his influential California predecessor’s tradition) of consistently championing free trade except when such policies jeopardize his own district – which depends heavily on agriculture. 

The new Majority Leader has favored every free trade agreement he’s had the chance to vote on since first winning his seat in 2006 – including the 2012 Korea deal that has supercharged the U.S. overall and manufacturing trade deficits.  For good measure, McCarthy that year also backed legislation that paved the way for granting World Trade Organization membership to Vladimir Putin’s Russia – which could prevent the West from punishing Russia’s aggression in Ukraine with meaningful sanctions.  And in 2010, he joined Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner and only 76 other House Members in opposing a bill passed by the House to create new tools to fight China’s currency manipulation.  (That measure was opposed by President Obama and killed in the Senate.)   

Not that McCarthy hasn’t broken this trade policy mold.  For example, he did favor a law to help Washington offset foreign government subsidies that rig trade markets to America’s disadvantage, and endorsed the ban that through 2011 kept unsafe trucks from Mexico off U.S. roads. 

But the vast majority of his decisions to leave the free trade and offshoring ranch have concerned farm trade.  As with his predecessor in California’s 23d district and former Capitol Hill boss , retired House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas, McCarthy apparently considers standard trade liberalization (and other free market) policies to be good for all Americans but not necessarily for the agricultural producers at home whose votes he needs, or for the U.S. farm sector in general. 

Thus McCarthy has supported longstanding U.S. subsidies for cotton (a big crop in his district), sugar and farm products in general, along with trade barriers to impede olive oil imports (another district mainstay).  But evidently since the California 23d doesn’t produce any U.S.-brand automotive products, the new Republican leader opposed the General Motors bailout.

Oddly, these single-minded ag loyalties and McCarthy’s new position could yet push him to play a major role in upsetting the U.S. trade policy apple cart.  The farm lobby has long favored conventional trade liberalization policies, especially since most have kept its massive subsidies and other key perks intact.  Indeed, lately its power has made the difference in winning Congressional endorsement of increasingly unpopular agreements and other conventional trade policy positions. 

But because trade deals have been under-performing lately for American agriculture, and its subsidies have often been on the diplomatic chopping block, farm sector disenchantment with trade policy is growing.  Nowadays, its most powerful elements have been strongly opposing any Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that permits Japan or other prospective members to keep any farm tariffs of their own.  Yet Tokyo has stonewalled Washington’s pleas to eliminate these barriers, and the Obama administration shows every sign of caving in order to save a signature policy achievement. 

If the farm lobby stands firm (still a considerable “if”) McCarthy will need to choose between the ag interests that literally made his career, and that could still torpedo the TPP on their own, and numerous other powerful business lobbies that are pushing hard for the Pacific Rim deal – and that are huge donors to Republican office-seekers.  Just as important, he could try to square the circle by giving an ag-opposed TPP a blessing that his caucus would easily recognize as half-hearted and safely ignored.  Wherever he lands, his decision, along with ag’s backbone, could literally make or break the Obama trade policy agenda.