My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
In a spectacular defeat for a key initiative of President Barack Obama, the United States House of Representatives rejected a bill that would have granted the president socalled “fast track” negotiating authority for crafting international trade deals. The vote also exposed some major divisions in the body politic that do not run along traditional party lines.
There are two issues being debated that the media and advocacy groups often conflate for their own purposes. The first is the bill to grant the president fast-track authority. This is a power often granted to presidents that reduces the requirements for Senate approval of a final deal. Instead of using the normal constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote by the Senate for approval of a treaty, the fast-track provisions allow for a simple majority vote without amendments or filibustering. It is designed to allow the president to negotiate intricate international trade deals with less risk of the Senate injecting domestic politics into it. It is this fast-track authority that the House rejected.
The second issue is the trade deal for which Obama wants to extra-constitutional authority. This is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal that has been negotiated for 10 years with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. It is a deal representing a gross domestic product of $28 trillion — 40 percent of global GDP — and one-third of the world’s trade. It is the largest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement in the last century.
Obama and the supporters of the TPP believe, rightly, that the deal could not garner support of two-thirds of the senators in order to pass in the normal manner. This is why they need the fast-track authority in order to lower the barrier to passage. Opponents of the TPP know that the best way to kill it is to prevent the president from being granted fasttrack authority, hence the fierce opposition to the bill. The battle over the fast-track authority bill is a proxy for the TPP deal.
In a testament to the ancient idiom that politics makes strange bedfellows, Obama’s champion for fast track authority in the House is Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, who appeared across the ballot from Obama as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012. Obama and Ryan argue that the TPP deal is necessary for free Pacific trade and vital for America to participate in the global economy.
Opponents, including the big labor unions and protectionist liberals, argue that the TPP is a disastrous freetrade agreement that will be disastrous to American jobs — particularly in manufacturing and technology.
Generally speaking, support or opposition to the TPP hinges on one’s support or opposition for free trade. Normally this would see the political lines drawn with strong Republican support for the TPP, because they generally support free trade, with Democrats strongly opposing it because they are ideologically opposed to free trade. But that is not how the vote in the House went.
Instead, the fast track authority fell far short of passage with 144 Democrats joining 158 Republicans to vote “nay.” This was despite the fact that the Republican leadership, whichcontrols the House, supported the bill and Obama took the highly unusual step of driving up to Capitol Hill to personally lobby reluctant Democrats.
The reason has less to do with this deal than it does with this president. Normally, enough reluctant Democrats would have rallied to their president to join with enough freetrade Republicans to pass the bill. But that did not happen. Obama was unable to get his own party to follow him and too many free-trade Republicans could not be convinced.
The reason is that none of them trust this president any more. Obama has lied too many times. Phrases like “not even a smidgeon of corruption” (on IRS scandal), “the NSA is not abusing its power,” “I said Benghazi was a terrorist attack from the beginning,” and Politifact’s Lie of the Year, “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” still ring in the ears of legislators. Liberal Democrats and unions do not trust Obama to negotiate a deal in the best interests of American workers. And free trade Republicans do not trust Obama to give away American interests and sovereignty to advance his anti-American energy and global warming agendas.
In the end, Nancy Pelosi, Jim Sensenbrenner and Mark Pocan are right. Paul Ryan, Glenn Grothman and Obama are wrong. This president has not demonstrated the negotiating acumen (see: Iran nuclear deal) or honesty to be trusted to negotiate a deal of the magnitude of the TPP without the normal congressional scrutiny as prescribed in the Constitution.
Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident. Reach him at email@example.com.