Make no mistake about it: Even though supporters of the president’s trade agenda can still muster immense amounts of money and political power to reverse the results of yesterday’s House vote on fast track trade negotiating authority, the measure’s effective (and potentially final) rejection is a big milestone in American political and economic history.
The crucial vote yesterday – on a secondary issue regarding government aid for workers who lose their jobs via trade – was so lopsided (302-126) that literally dozens of Democratic and Republican Members of Congress would have to change their minds in the next few days to win it for the offshoring lobby. That’s not impossible, but defeat for these powerful forces, which include Big Business, Big Finance, and Big Media, isn’t unprecedented, either. President Bill Clinton was denied fast track authority twice, in 1997 and 1998 – and when nearly everyone (mistakenly, in my view) thought the economy was strong. In addition, Congress refused to renew fast track, which prevents it from amending proposed trade agreements, for President George W. Bush in 2007.
Nonetheless, if yesterday’s House action stands, U.S. trade policy, and a lot of American politics, will be brought to a cross-roads, since it will mark an end to Congress’ more recent record of approving trade deals reached by presidents (like the 2011 agreements with Colombia, Korea, and Panama), and supporting related trade policies (like enabling currency manipulation by China). So here are some preliminary reactions and thoughts on what just happened, What It All Means, and what it could portend.
>In politics, time is almost always on the side of forces trying to prevent something, and that’s much of what you need to know about why the fast track advocates want and need to hold a re-vote ASAP on the crucial Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) issue. Much of the rest has to do with the ongoing intensification of the 2016 presidential and Congressional cycle. Even trade supporters widely acknowledge that their positions are risky politically, and that therefore it’s best to approve trade deals or take similar actions as long before upcoming elections as possible. Both sides of the fast track debate know that the closer to November, 2016 a vote gets, the less likely it is to pass – or even come up. So if the bipartisan fast track champions can’t win next week, the proposal’s goose really does look cooked.
>Also interesting on timing: In 2011, when the economy was weaker, and job-creation much less impressive, those three aforementioned trade agreements passed by respectable margins. Yesterday, after four years of improvement (however slow), legislation to boost the chance of future deals failed. That upcoming election cycle might account for much of the explanation in two respects. First, there’s that overall political unpopularity of current trade policies. But the second concerns the dramatically differing positions of the president and Congressional Democrats. After all, he’s not running for re-election; most of them are. So not only are the latter freed of the pressure to support their White House incumbent as his reelection campaign approaches. His political future is no longer at risk at all.
>My happiness over the TAA vote was almost matched by my discouragement during the preceding floor debate. The economic case against new TPP-style trade agreements is overwhelming, as I’ve written in this previous post, and in articles like this and this. But fast track supporters just trotted out the same talking points debunked here. Not that I’m saying that it’s about me or my work. Instead, I’m worried that if current trade policies aren’t rejected for the strongest possible substantive reasons, the most valuable lessons might not be learned, and shifting political winds could blow policy right back on the wrong course.
>Indeed, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi nicely illustrated that point after her game-changing declaration of opposition to TAA renewal under these circumstances. Addressing her Republican colleagues in particular, Pelosi pointedly stated that fast track’s prospects would “greatly increase” if they helped her pass a highway bill. Not that America doesn’t urgently need major infrastructure repair and upgrades. But are they worth passage of the current fast track bill? Even if stronger Buy American requirements are added to it, not in my opinion – because fast track’s passage threatens further erosion of the nation’s industrial and technology base. If those capabilities keep getting hammered by offshoring-friendly trade policies, it will matter a lot less how efficiently Americans can move goods and services and data, communicate with each other, and utilize the internet.
>Speaking of the debate, let’s thank Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and his GOP colleague David Schweikert of Arizona for its two lowest points. Clearly playing to the strong, growing partisanship of his caucus, Boehner repeated a major talking point aimed at those Republicans reluctant to empower Mr. Obama to do much of anything. The fast track bill, he claimed was needed “to make darn sure that there’s less authority for the president…..” Really? Is that why this president asked for the measure? Because he relishes losing power to act independent of Congress’ wishes?
>But at least Boehner didn’t get into the political gutter like Schweikert. As he put it in his floor remarks, fast track opponents have been spreading so much blatant misinformation that Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, “would be proud of them.” Anyone agreeing with me that invoking Nazism in this or any other domestic political context is contemptible, please call Schweikert’s office Monday and demand that he apologize or resign.
>President Obama didn’t cover himself with glory, either. The president made the most personal possible plea for support from House Democrats yesterday morning, asking that they not reject “my trade agenda.” In other words, Mr. Obama ultimately believed that the fast track dispute was all about him. He also reportedly impugned the opponents’ motives, slamming their switch on TAA as a cynical legislative ploy. And this attitude on top of his arrogant, repeated dismissals of trade policy critics as know-nothings. Not surprisingly, many Democrats have shot back that the president himself needed to explain why he finally dropped his longtime reluctance to engage lawmakers directly in order to rescue a policy favored most ardently by many of his fiercest political opponents.
>Also unimpressive – the Washington Post’s editorial reaction to the fast track defeat. On top of being childishly petulant in their tone, dogmatically pro-offshoring Post editorial writers boneheadedly quoted Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly, one of fast track’s few House Democratic supporters, to make their point that opponents were shrinking from “shaping America’s future.” As I’ve pointed out, Connolly represents Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. whose economies are dominated by direct and indirect (through contracting) federal spending. In other words, he’s as much of a paragon of capitalism and competition and free markets as the Kardashians are of discretion.
>We’ll have to wait till the work week begins to start getting foreign reactions to the fast track vote, and the other countries so far included in the TPP talks may hold off until its final fate is clear. But if fast track is indeed dead, we’re likely to see just how ludicrous one of the measure’s supporters’ main talking points has been. Fast track backers have always insisted that without passage, other countries wouldn’t negotiate seriously with Washington, since whatever they agreed to could be rejected by Congress. This is nonsense, I’ve argued, because the U.S. market is far and away the biggest prize of any trade negotiations America is involved in. Especially for export-led economies like those in Asia, walking away from the TPP for lack of fast track would amount to cutting off much more than their noses to spite their faces.
Tomorrow, let’s look at two more purely political implications of the fast track vote.