Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So far, the Senate’s vote this afternoon to block debate on granting fast track trade negotiating authority to President Obama stands out mainly for two somewhat contradictory but equally valid reasons.

First, just one look at the actual roll call is enough to remind that even lawmakers’ decisions on the highest profile, emotionally charged issues can be an incredibly nuanced mix of substantive and procedural considerations. For example, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has helped lead the charge to grant the president a virtual blank check for concluding new trade agreements, voted against proceeding, even though the triumph of the Nays puts fast track’s future in major jeopardy. The reasons reportedly were tactical, related to Senate procedures. Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, one of the few Republicans on Capitol Hill understanding the need for fundamentally new approaches to both trade and immigration policy, is recorded as voting for the measure. Unless that’s a typo, I’m dying to find out why.

Then there’s Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and ranking minority member of the Finance Committee – which takes the lead on trade issues in the Senate. Wyden brokered a fast track compromise with Republican Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah that resulted in a bill strongly opposed by most Democrats in both Houses of Congress. Yet Wyden cast a ballot against starting a fast track debate on the Senate floor – avowedly because McConnell and other Republican leaders refused to guarantee strongly enough that related trade measures would be voted on as well. So did several other Senate Democrats who normally support standard trade deals.

Even stranger, these related bills are at best a mixed bag when it comes to affecting trade policy, trade flows and, most important, the U.S. economy’s growth and hiring performance – which could certainly use a helping hand. For example, one is a measure that would fund so-called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) for workers who lose their jobs because of import competition or trade-related offshoring. These retraining and reeducation programs are widely viewed as chronic failures by those who have studied their results. Their continued popularity in Washington reflects their ability to enable trade deal supporters to claim genuine concern for Americans whose livelihoods they repeatedly vote to devastate. In other words, TAA support historically has provided a measure political cover for trade liberalization votes. But this year so far it’s throwing a major major monkey wrench into the president’s trade agenda.

Another trade-related demand made by fast track opponents is legislative movement on extending a free trade deal with sub-Saharan Africa. Although this arrangement’s impacts on the U.S. economy are modest, it’s involved a sacrifice of American jobs, mainly in the apparel industry, for African jobs. Even those believing that this tradeoff makes sense for U.S. interests should be troubled by how the African deal has become a back door for shipping Chinese-made garments, and clothing made from Chinese, not U.S.-manufactured fabric, into the American market.

At the same time, despite the byzantine array of motives on display, this Senate vote was a genuine milestone. For whatever their narrower and even cynical concerns, Senators who opposed launching the fast track debate had to know that any delay could well doom the measure, and with it any hopes for new trade agreements for the foreseeable future. The reason? The longer these decisions take, the deeper they get pushed into the already unfolding 2016 presidential cycle, when few politicians relish running as champions of current U.S. trade strategies.

Indeed, for all the White House efforts to dismiss today’s events as an “procedural snafu,” this anti-fast track vote represents the first time in decades that the Senate has rejected a major trade policy measure that didn’t require approval in the House as well. (In 2011, the Senate passed a stringent anti-currency manipulation bill, but many of the Yes voters no doubt knew that the measure was going nowhere in the House.)

As a result, Mr. Obama’s trade agenda, including his proposed Pacific Rim trade deal, is by no means dead. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, till now a bulwark of opposition to fast track and that Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement reportedly is already trying to figure out how to save the president from complete humiliation. But given the Senate’s usually friendly disposition to standard trade liberalization policies, and given how its reservations may further stiffen the spine of the traditionally balkier House, there can be no doubt that U.S. trade policy history was made today. And given the current strategy’s record of slowing both economic growth and job creation, it’s history that even the most ambivalent, even Machiavellian fast track opponents can be proud to have made.

Advertisements