Talk about coincidences! No sooner did I put up a post this AM lamenting the apparent failure of Republican giant-killer Dave Brat (and most other conservative populists) to oppose job-killing trade deals as well as job-killing immigration policies, some evidence came in regarding how Brat — who stunningly unseated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor this week in a primary — views U.S. trade policy. Here’s a link to a Cato Institute post citing a recent interview Brat gave on the subject: http://www.cato.org/blog/dave-brat-free-trade
As noted by Cato trade analyst Simon Lester, Brat’s focus on tariffs begs lots of major questions on the momentous non-tariff issues raised by recent trade deals and those currently being negotiated with the European Union and Pacific Rim countries. These range from non-tariff barriers to trade (which often take the form of national health and other regulations) to inserting safeguards for the environment and labor standards in trade deals, to government subsidies for various forms of economic activity that can warp trade flows. And as suggested by this list, trade agreements addressing these issues also affect national sovereignty.
In addition, Lester rightly calls attention to the link Brat creates between his support for free trade policies and respect for “rule of law” by actual and prospective trade partners. If Brat is serious about this apparent condition, he’ll have an especially hard time supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership sought by President Obama. For the Asian countries currently covered by the deal (like Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam), and those sure to be admitted later (like China and Korea), have nothing like the rule-of-law tradition so strong in the United States (however often it’s honored in the breach). And the issue is anything but academic. These countries’ are masters at rigging trade markets for their own advantage via secretive bureaucracies opaque to outsiders. As a result, most of their main trade barriers are hideously difficult even to identify, much less reduce or eliminate.
So although Brat’s strong free market leanings incline him to support standard forms of trade liberalization in principle, he may recognize that real-world policy challenges greatly complicate the matter. Or maybe he’d be receptive to this argument. Right now, the safest bet is that Brat is a work in progress on the issue. A determined effort could turn him into a genuine trade realist.