In trade policy, Obama needs the GOP [Commentary]

Protectionist Democrats are less likely to support the president's signature trade agreements

April 27, 2014|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

Free trade has been instrumental in building the most powerful economy on earth. In fact, 38 million U.S. jobs are a direct result of U.S. trade with the world.

Yet, it's not so easy to be a "free trader" in today's politics. Some view trade with less developed (read: low labor cost) nations as a one way ticket to domestic job loss. Indeed, two decades after the North American Free Trade Agreement, it's still easy politics to criticize the real and perceived disadvantages of mega trade deals.

It is against this backdrop that President Barack Obama has begun his pitch for so-called "trade promotion authority" (formerly known as "fast track"). The stakes are high: Two significant deals (one with the European Union and another with over a dozen countries in the Pacific Rim) will make or break the president's trade legacy.

In light of our separation of powers, TPA makes good sense. The Constitution vests the executive with the sole power to negotiate treaties, but only Congress has the authority to pass laws. And so fast track has been offered as a way for Congress to register its policy objectives while the president goes about the business of negotiating terms and conditions. The first delegation of the power occurred in 1934 with the passage of the "Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act." The authority has been expanded numerous times since, most recently in 2002 — an extension that lapsed in 2007.

The bottom line: Congress pushes its priorities for the president to pursue. In exchange, the president is assured of an up or down vote and no last minute Congressional amendments to undermine what the executive has negotiated — an incentive for our trade partners to deal in good faith.

But what was relatively easy for past presidents is proving quite difficult for President Obama.

First, there is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a partisan laborite uninterested in forcing his vulnerable members to cast trade votes that will alienate the party's union base. Hence, the leader's vocal opposition to the president's State of the Union plea for TPA. The recent special election in Florida wherein an underdog Republican won in a district twice carried by the president will further dissuade Mr. Reid from antagonizing his party's most loyal supporters.

Then there are (some) tea party Republicans, who present an obstacle more because they are distrustful of this president's promises than because they are latter day protectionists. A portion of the approximately 60 caucus members could break with the GOP leadership on TPA. Still, a clear majority of Republican members in both chambers are "yea" votes on a bill desired by both their base and their chief antagonist, the president.

A third branch of the opposition is more identified by their votes than their rhetoric. They are the phony free traders, always willing to spout the free trade line at the local Chamber of Commerce but never quite ready to cast a supporting vote when it counts. This bipartisan group uses the popular "fair trade" fallback when explaining away anti-trade votes. And although subject to negotiation, important "sweeteners" such as "trade adjustment assistance" (dollars for workers displaced by foreign trade) and counter-subsidies to currency manipulation (an important tool in the fight against cheap Chinese exports) are never quite enough. It's called wanting it both ways, an unserious posture if we are intent on eliminating trade barriers around the world.

Yet, even if the foregoing obstacles are overcome, there is the persistent issue of how to market free trade to the general public.

The problems are considerable.

Most private sector employees (and certainly most of those employees within the service sector) do not feel the direct impact of trade policy. Further, trade agreements can lead to job loss, particularly in lower technology sectors of the economy. Unions are expert in exploiting this phenomenon to their political advantage. Congressional Democrats in labor districts know this fact of life all too well.

On the flipside, American business is notoriously poor at marketing the advantages of trade, particularly where new openings to foreign markets lead to the creation of new jobs. In a media context, advocates have failed to make the positive aspects of trade tangible in the same way that opponents have personalized displaced workers in vulnerable sectors.

There is another issue in play: an isolationist trend in the U.S. — an attitude linked to the unsatisfactory conclusion of two expensive wars and a continuing tepid recovery that has failed to temper middle class anxiety.

Going forward, a weakened President Obama will be hard pressed to secure pro-trade votes from protectionist Democrats unhappy with Obamacare's drag on the party. As a result, the president will be forced to rely on GOP support to pass his signature trade agreements.

Trade bills make strange bedfellows indeed.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.


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