In a dramatic conclusion to a hard-fought battle, the House of Representatives has rejected the Trade Promotion Authority bill for which President Obama lobbied furiously. Procedurally, what happened was that House Democrats voted to kill “trade adjustment assistance” to workers unemployed as a result of free trade, a program Democrats have long supported. Not enough Republicans supported trade adjustment assistance to make up the difference.
So the trade promotion authority bill that was passed by the Senate never came up for a vote. In its place, the House passed a straight trade promotion bill, stripped of trade adjustment assistance. Presumably that version will never get through the Senate, and Obama will not be authorized to pursue “fast track” trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
I have been on the fence on this issue, favoring free trade but unwilling to give the Obama administration power to negotiate bad trade deals. I think the best result probably would have been to pass the trade promotion authority bill, but then vote down proposed agreements like Trans-Pacific if they were disadvantageous or compromised American sovereignty. I think I agree with what Ted Cruz said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show:
HH: Let’s take that opportunity, then, to go and talk about free trade. TPA, TPP, Export-Import Bank, Senator Cruz, for clarity’s sake, can you quickly give us an overview of where you are on those three issues as there’s quite a lot of confusion among conservative voters as to where different people are and why on each of those three issues?
TC: Sure. There is a lot of confusion, and there’s unfortunately a lot of misinformation that you can get on the internet, that people are confused. So let’s explain what each of those three are. TPA is trade promotion authority. That’s also known as fast track. That is the process through which free trade agreements are negotiated. Historically since FDR, virtually every president has had fast track authority. What fast track provides is simply if a free trade agreement is negotiated, the Congress will vote on it up or down without amendment. And history has demonstrated for the last 80 years that the only way to get free trade agreements adopted is to have fast track, that if there is no fast track, free trade agreements do not end up being negotiated. TPA is what the Senate voted on recently. I voted in favor of fast track, because I support free trade. I think free trade benefits America, it creates jobs, opening markets to our farmers, to our ranchers, to our manufacturers, improves economic growth. In Texas alone, roughly three million jobs depend upon international trade. And if you support free trade, the only way history has shown free trade agreements get negotiated is with fast track. Now there is a second issue that’s caused a great deal of confusion, and that is TPP.
HH: Trans-Pacific Partnership.
TC: Correct, and that is one specific trade deal that is currently being negotiated. It is separate from TPA. Congress has not voted on TPP. And there’s a great deal of concern about TPP. Now I have not voted on TPP, and I haven’t decided if I will support it or not, because the negotiation isn’t complete. And I’m going to wait and review and see what the agreement is first before assessing if it would be beneficial or harmful.
The politics of this issue are unusual, as President Obama was counting almost entirely on Republicans to give him the authority he wanted. With a clear majority of Americans believing that trade deals have cost American jobs, there was little down side for Democrats (or Republicans) to oppose TPA. Given that Congress has given fast-track authority to nearly all modern presidents, it seems likely that Obama’s failure results from 1) his extraordinarily divisive treatment of Republicans, and 2) his failure to cultivate relationships with Congressional Democrats. The political effect of today’s vote will be to make President Obama an even lamer lame duck than he already was.
UPDATE: A Washington insider writes to say that TPA may not be dead after all. The House’s GOP leadership may bring trade adjustment assistance up for a vote again next week, perhaps on Tuesday. Today TAA failed by a 2-1 vote, but some in Washington believe that many Republicans will change their votes, resulting in a bill that can go straight to the president for signature. The $64,000 question, apparently, is how many Republican House members will switch their votes.