The fight over Trade Promotion Authority was never about Barack Obama, despite the best efforts of the White House and many in the media to portray it as such. The president’s effort to obtain congressional consent to “fast track” a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which failed Friday amid a complex flurry of House votes, fell apart because of something that runs far deeper: frustration on the part of Americans with race-to-the-bottom trade policies as defined by the North American Free Trade Agreement and extended across ensuing agreements.
This is a reality that the president and his allies need to recognize as they revisit fast track and trade issues—not just in advance of an expected “revote” on a key measure Tuesday but in the weeks and months to come. America is moving beyond the point where a politics of partisanship or personality is sufficient to secure support for “free trade” policies that have not worked and that will not work.
The free-trade model that has been promoted for decades by Democratic and Republican presidents, along with Wall Street interests and multinational corporations, has failed American workers and communities—and millions of Americans who were part of the president’s winning coalitions in 2008 and in 2012 recognize this.
Like presidents before him, Obama sought fast-track authority in order to make it easier to engage in trade negotiations, in particular, and international relations, in general. His harshest critics suggested that he was selling out to the Wall Street interests that provided substantial support for his 2012 reelection campaign. The president argued that he merely wanted flexibility so that he could develop better deals than past presidents did. Whatever the calculus, Obama could not convince his fellow partisans to give him—and his successor—the authority he sought. Too many factory closings, too many unmet promises, had left no room for traditional appeals on the grounds of party loyalty or personal connections.
On the critical vote Friday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was a “no,” and in declaring her opposition she spoke the sentiments of most Democrats, saying, “Whatever the deal is with other countries, we want a better deal for America’s workers.”
It wasn’t that the Democrats wanted to deal Obama a defeat, as the vapid headlines suggested Friday afternoon. This wasn’t the personality contest that pundits so enjoy. Many of the “no” votes came from the president’s earliest and most sincere allies: House members such as Michigan’s John Conyers, Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, and California’s Barbara Lee. The issue was trade policy, and most Democrats in the House share the view of labor, farm, environmental, and human-rights groups that believe our trade policies must be radically altered.
It was this understanding, not some antipathy toward Obama, that led 144 House Democrats to bolt on the critical vote, despite a last-minute appeal by the president to House Democratic Caucus members. Only 40 of Obama’s partisan allies voted for the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) component of the package. The president won the support of twice as many Republicans as Democrats on the TAA vote, which had been packaged with the fast-track legislation. A vote against either measure doomed the final package. (Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he wants to bring the TAA issue up again next week in a last-ditch effort to pull all the pieces together, but that will only happen if a lot of Democratic votes flip.)
In an essentially symbolic test on fast track Friday, which came just after the TAA defeat, only 28 Democrats sided with the 191 Republicans who voted “yes.”
The Democrats who voted against the legislation did not do so to hurt the president, and the Republicans who voted for the legislation weren’t trying to help the president. The Republicans cast entirely predictable votes for a trade agenda that benefits the Wall Street interests that influence both parties, but that tend to carry the most sway with the GOP.
One of the steadiest critics of the president, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan, worked feverishly for weeks to secure support for Trade Promotional Authority, under which Congress would have granted Obama the so-called fast-track authority to close the deal on sweeping new trade agreements such as the TPP. Ryan’s enthusiastic lobbying provided essential backing for Obama’s effort to get Congress to cede its oversight and amendment powers over trade deals.
But Ryan was not providing that support because of any change of heart regarding Obama. He was providing that support because he invariably aligns with Wall Street in fights over economic issues. And he had an added incentive for doing so: If fast track had been approved Friday (or if it is eventually approved), Obama would not be the only president who gets the freedom to negotiate deals with limited congressional oversight. His successor, potentially a Republican, would get the same authority.
President Obama needed allies such as Ryan as the House prepared to vote on whether to join the Senate in supporting the surrender of congressional input and oversight over the TPP scheme. (Trade Promotion Authority requires a straight up-or-down vote on a negotiated trade agreement, with no amendments and limited debate.)
The president was not able to look to his usual allies in the labor movement. Unions have been overwhelmingly opposed to a deal that Communications Workers of America posters refer to as “NAFTA on Steroids.”
The president was not able to look to progressive farm groups. The National Farmers Union was explicitly opposed to using a fast-track approach that would allow trade agreements to move through Congress with limited debate and no amendments.
In fact, as Obama ramped up his advocacy for a free-trade strategy that progressive Americans tend to see as a threat to workers, farmers, the environment, human rights, and democracy, he acknowledged that he wasn’t able to count on traditional allies to stir up grassroots support in the states. That left the president in strange company—aligned with House members such as Ryan, and with groups that promote policies that activists say contribute to the growing gap between a wealthy few and an increasingly impoverished many.
While Obama’s usual coalition partners were opposing fast track in cities and states across the country, the president got support from a group that has maintained an extensive network of political connections in states across the country and is enthusiastically on board for “the expedited conclusions and approval of the TPP.”
That group is the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Unfortunately for Obama, if any group has come to represent the problem with letting corporate interest dictate policy, it’s ALEC.
The corporate-funded organization that stirred considerable controversy several years ago with its advocacy on behalf of so-called “Stand Your Ground” gun laws and restrictive voter ID rules, ALEC produces so-called “model legislation” and resolutions for introduction by conservative state legislators. If corporate America is for a proposal, it’s a good bet that ALEC is promoting it. And ALEC has been enthusiastically pro–fast track.
In 2013, the ALEC board of directors approved and circulated a “Model Policy” that celebrates the TPP and declares that it “will be an impetus for further bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.”
Expanding trade along lines established by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations with China has always been on ALEC’s agenda. The multinational corporations that cover the group’s expenses, and help to define every aspect of its agenda, embrace an approach that allows them to move factories and jobs from country to country in order to lower wages and avoid labor, environmental, and human-rights regulations.
ALEC’s model policy on the TPP even made respectful reference to President Obama and his administration. That’s ironic, as ALEC members have been among the most ardent critics of the president’s policies. Not long ago, the group published a “State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare.” Yet, ALEC has highlighted the Obama administration’s support of the TPP “as one part of its strategy to increase competitiveness and employment in the United States.”
Over the past year, ALEC has urged state legislators who have been busy trying to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act to get their states to formally endorse the TPP. The model policy concludes:
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the legislature of [INSERT STATE] call(s) on Congress to support negotiations for a comprehensive, high-standard and ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that will provide a platform for regional trade and economic integration.
ALEC’s International Relations Task Force, which is co-chaired by a representative from Philip Morris International, declares on its webpage that it “promotes both bilateral and multilateral free trade frameworks, initiatives and partnerships.” ALEC has a long history of being at the forefront of fights to sell the trade agenda outlined in the North American Free Trade Agreement and other deals backed by Democratic and Republican presidents.
Indeed, the task force that’s promoting the TPP says, ALEC’s international policy work is persuasive “precisely because our policy directives are backed by our public and private sector members—American state legislators from all 50 states and some of the world’s largest corporations.”
That’s not the right coalition for this president, for America’s future.
That’s not the right coalition for workers in the United States, or for workers in the countries with which the United States trades.
President Obama needs to recognize this.
The president will, undoubtedly, continue to advocate for trade agreements, but he cannot succeed merely with the support of Wall Street, Paul Ryan, and ALEC. He needs to renew his coalition, in Washington and in the states. And the way to do that is not with fast-track authority, secret negotiations, and the old “free trade” model. The way to succeed is with a fair-trade model that puts workers, farmers, the environment, human rights, and democracy ahead of the corporate interests that want only a race to the bottom.