Today’s rebuke for the Obama Administration and his friends on the Republican side of the aisle on their trade agenda restores democratic accountability to the process of governing. What Obama was proposing was a trick, one used repeatedly to advance distasteful policies, by getting each side to vote only on the parts they like. And House progressives responded by saying they wouldn’t play that game anymore. If they can withstand the pressure, not only will trade be derailed, but the era of the split-vote gambit, where opponents help the victors, will be over.
Progressive Democrats took their stand on trade adjustment assistance (TAA), a separate bill to “fast track” trade authority for the President, which the Senate linked together, so that they had to pass concurrently. TAA offers modest job training, income support and health insurance assistance to workers who lose their jobs from trade deals. It’s not very effective, but it sounds good; Democrats who oppose trade deals can say that they at least got some help for workers.
TAA and fast track have passed together ever since the Trade Act of 1974. This is a Washington game where Democrats get to vote for TAA so Republicans don’t have to. Republicans don’t favor TAA because they see it as welfare.
That set up liberal Democrats as the deciding factor on whether Obama would get his fast-track trade authority. The President went to Capitol Hill to tell Democrats to “play it straight” on the vote. But voting for TAA as a sweetener for a policy most Democrats don’t support is the opposite of playing it straight. It’s a stupid game, and progressives finally decided not to play.
When Nancy Pelosi made her rambling speech on the House floor, finally saying that she would not vote for TAA, she was getting out in front of a caucus that already told her they weren’t going along. Pelosi said specifically she was voting to “slow down” fast track, meaning that she could be persuaded down the road to bring this home. But today, TAA fell 126-302, with only 39 Democrats supporting.
In a show vote just after, the House passed fast track, the vote that gives the President the ability to negotiate trade deals and bring them back for a guaranteed up-or-down vote without the possibility of filibuster or amendment. But without both fast track and TAA passing, the bill cannot go to the President for his signature.
Here are the options now in the House:
- Pass TAA on a re-vote. Speaker John Boehner set this up for a vote next week, where they will try to persuade more Democrats and Republicans. Republican support topped out at 93 (votes started moving away from TAA once it was clear it wouldn’t pass), meaning that 124 Democrats would need to give their support. That’s a very tall order, especially now that it’s clearly the only thing standing between the President and his trade authority. Democratic groups, which demanded a no vote on TAA, will surely continue to whip the vote on their side.
- Pass a separate standalone fast track bill. Just the threat of this, leaving Democrats with the President’s trade authority in place and no TAA, might be enough to get TAA passed. But it shouldn’t be. Just because 219 members voted for fast track on a meaningless vote today doesn’t mean they would be there on a standalone vote. Also, there is no way the Senate would concur on a fast-track trade bill without TAA: that would lose too many Democratic votes to pass. So this seems like an idle threat. Mitch McConnell could pass fast track with a promise to pass TAA later, but he’s already done that gambit once, getting fast track forward with a promise of a vote on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. That promise has been broken, and there’s no reason for Senators to believe McConnell again.
- Make changes to TAA or fast track to get enough Democrats on board: This is what Pelosi was intimating, but it’s hard to see how that could plausibly occur. They would have to get any changes agreed to by the House and the Senate, which opens the process up to a lot of messiness. And even if all the issues with TAA were dispensed with – no paying for the assistance with Medicare cuts, no exemptions for public employees, etc. – the bill has now become the impediment to more corporate-written trade deals that set regulatory caps and facilitate job loss, and liberal Democrats know it. As Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told the Huffington Post, “You can’t take the politics out of politics.”
- Give Democrats something they want: Nancy Pelosi’s Dear Colleague letter makes this clear: “The prospects for passage (of fast track) will greatly increase with the passage of a robust highway bill.” This means that, if Republicans vote for more infrastructure spending, Pelosi would be likely to supply the votes for trade. But it’s not clear whether this is coming from Pelosi only, or if it would have buy-in from her caucus. She might be making a deal her caucus hasn’t empowered her to make. Plus, that would involve Republicans in the House and Senate agreeing to fund more infrastructure, and nobody knows where the money would come from.
It’s entirely possible that one of these scenarios could play out for Republican leaders and the White House, but there are plenty of hurdles involved. And each day that fast track doesn’t pass moves the eventual vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the really tough vote, further into the Presidential election cycle. Once fast track passes, negotiators must finalize that deal with 12 nations, then sign it, then start the 90-day legislative clock before it gets a final vote in Congress. That puts us deep into the winter and maybe right around the Iowa caucuses.
Trent Lott used to say that you can’t pass trade deals in even-numbered years, when the public actually might be paying attention. That’s what is likely to happen with more delays. So the clock is the ally of those who oppose the trade deals, and the more they draw it out, the more difficult the climb becomes.
While this is definitely not over, if Democrats do hang tough and kill the President’s trade agenda by not playing along on TAA, it will be a victory for good government. This insanity of getting to pass the parts of a bill you like and having them smushed together Frankenstein-monster style makes it impossible to hold anyone responsible for the ultimate outcome. Democrats should be proud of opting out of that charade.