If there were ever a no-brainer, the promotion of free trade with Asia and the Pacific Rim – and particularly “fast track” authority for the President (any President) is it. The imminent defeat of the President’s Pacific Rim trade initiative was the result of labor union intransigence, rightwing irredentism, leftwing lunacy and pure cowardice – not necessarily in that order. It is hard to imagine a more perfect storm leading to a more absurd, damaging result.
It took some inside baseball in the House to make that happen. Since Big Labor is predictably against free trade (preferring to preserve the status quo against fuller employment and productivity in the U.S.), Democrats have long sought ways to appease the beast. The keystone of that effort is “trade adjustment assistance,”, by which the Government has the ability to offer training and other benefits to workers displaced by competition from imports. Although Republicans have long been contemptuous of that program as a pork barrel sop to labor (which it is), it has been in existence for decades, and everyone knows it is critical to passing the fast track effort. Unfortunately, even as President Obama was making herculean efforts to get House Democrats to vote for the packages, Nancy Pelosi turned on him. She ultimately decided to join many in her caucus in opposing trade assistance for domestic workers, something they have supported since time immemorial, knowing that its defeat would doom the overall package. And many ideologically pure Republicans joined the left wing Democrats. The result was a lopsided loss for trade assistance and a win for wingnuts everywhere. Which means fast-track Trade Promotion Authority is definitely in peril, if not dead.
This is a disheartening, wounding result. It hurts all workers who are employed in making and delivering our products for export . Just look at Ms. Pelosi’s California, which sent over $174 billion worth of goods overseas – including aircraft engines and aviation parts, telecom equipment, data processing machinery, integrated circuits, not to mention wine and almonds and scrap metal. Why don’t those workers get any consideration? Six of California’s top 7 trading partners–Mexico, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan–were part of this proposal. Or what about Texas? Texas exported $289 billion worth of goods last year, with almost half of that going to Mexico, Canada, and South Korea. Do unionized workers at the Port of Houston count? Does the OCAW care? But Texas’ 36-member delegation couldn’t see it. Only 3 of 11 Democrats voted for the President’s proposal, and only 3 out of 25 Republicans supported the trade assistance proposal. The other 30 were less interested in free trade with friends such as Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan (among other) than in maintaining ideological or partisan purity. We expect this kind of nonsense from D’s such as Lloyd Doggett, Gene Green or Sheila Jackson Lee, but from supposedly more forward-looking Joaquin Castro? And on the GOP side, we would expect ideology to trump common sense in the person of Louie Gohmert (who even voted against fast track authority itself), but when did Pete Olson, Pete Sessions, and Michael McCaul leave the room? Only six Texans should be cited for common sense: Johnson, Cuellar and O’Rourke (Democrats) and Barton, Brady and Thornberry (Republicans).
The truth is that this proposal offered one of the best ways to use our “soft power” to combat the ever-growing influence of China. It is also the cheapest form of foreign aid that one can imagine, especially with respect to Mexico, where any aid to its economy helps to stem illegal immigration into the U.S. The resounding defeat of this bill lays bare the dysfunction and stupidity of both parties.
As a side note, but one that may assume growing significance as we look forward to the next presidency, another disheartening (but not surpsing) facet of this controversy was Hillary Clinton’s craven silence while the proposals were being debated. Candidate Clinton consistently dodged reporters and refused to take questions on many critical topics. Her silence on the trade assistance bill leading up to the vote was cowardly. After trade assistance authority went down to defeat, she said: “The President should listen to and work with his allies in Congress starting with Nancy Pelosi, who have expressed their concerns about the impact that a weak agreement would have on our workers to make sure we get the best strongest deal possible,” she said. “And if we don’t get it, there should be no deal.” Wow, talk about straddling barbed wire. Here’s a personage who has been involved in national politics and policy for at least 25 years, including as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, and she bit her tongue until after the vote? I’ll bet the man who appointed her Secretary of State really appreciated her post-vote advice. To observers who suggest it’s a good strategy for a Presidential frontrunner to avoid taking controversial positions, I say: Yeah – and Nixon had an undisclosed plan to get us out of Vietnam. If she’s like this as a candidate, we can only guess what she will be like as President. We can’t say we weren’t warned.