There are a lot of reasons Senate majority leader Harry Reid shot down President Obama’s State of the Union request for a congressional grant of fast-track trade promotion authority to negotiate new free-trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Reid has a history of skepticism when it comes to trade deals. He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, permanent normalization of trade relations with China and a host of other arrangements that were favored by Wall Street interests.
Reid has a skeptical caucus. Only one Senate Democrat is on record in favor of granting fast-track authority, which would allow the administration to negotiate the TPP deal without meaningful congressional oversight or amendments. And that senator, Montana’s Max Baucus, is preparing to exit the chamber to become US ambassador to China. Senators who are sticking around, like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren, are ardently opposed.
Yet Reid’s rejection of Obama’s request was not a show of skepticism. It was an expression of outspoken opposition.
The majority leader took his own stand, announcing, “I am against fast track.”
And he took a stand for the chamber, declaring, “Everyone would be well-advised to not push this right now.”
Reid was so firm that some congressional observers declared the president’s initiative to be finished, at least for 2014. That's not certain. The White House will keep pushing for Senate action, as statements from Secretary of State John Kerry and others confirmed. Kerry suggests that Reid's opposition could soften over time—at least to the point of allowing a vote. And the House, where top Republicans favor fast track, could create pressure by acting first on the issue—even in the face of widespread opposition among mainstream Democrats and Tea Party Republicans.
But, make no mistake, Reid put the fast track push on shakier ground, while at the same time confirming the extent that deep doubts about US trade policy are present on Capitol Hill—and across America.
Why did Reid say “no” so firmly, and so quickly?
It has a lot to do with policy.
But it also has to do with politics.
Reid is determined to maintain Democratic control of the Senate in the difficult 2014 election cycle. And he understands that the debate about free-trade policy has evolved to a point where it is a concern not just in traditionally Democratic industrial centers but in rural regions that will play a critical role in determining control of the Senate.
Twenty years ago, when Reid was casting a relatively lonely vote against NAFTA, then-President Bill Clinton could count on a lot of Senate support from farm-state Democrats. In those days, farmers were being told that free-trade pacts would yield tremendous benefits for American agriculture and rural communities.
But it did not work out that way.
Today, there is significant opposition to fast track among farm groups that take their cues from rural America, as opposed to Wall Street. And that matters because rural voters are an important factor in critical Senate contests. Indeed, they could be definitional in states that may decide which party controls the Senate, such as Montana, North Carolina and Iowa. Congressman Bruce Braley, the Democratic front-runner in the race to succeed retiring Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, signed a key letter last year opposing fast track and has termed trade deals that threaten working farmers and rural communities “simply unacceptable.”
The debate about how the United States establishes and enforces so-called free-trade agreements is often portrayed as a fight over the future of industrial workers and the cities where they reside. This is appropriate enough, as there is now a broad sense that Public Citizen Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach is right when she says that race-to-the-bottom arrangements like NAFTA “contribute to income inequality as more middle-class jobs are lost.”
But bad trade policies also harm farmers and rural regions.
It is with this in mind that the National Farmers Union and a number of other farm and rural groups have urged members of Congress to say “no” to fast track. If Congress surrenders a measure of its constitutionally defined authority over trade agreements, TPP negotiations will be conducted behind closed doors and without meaningful congressional input or oversight. Any agreement would be submitted to Congress, but members of the House and Senate could not amend it to reflect the demands of Americans for workplace, environmental or human rights protections.
Nor could they ensure that farmers in the United States and abroad get a fair shake—or that consumers would be empowered with tools such as “country of origin” labeling.
That’s not a wise approach for the people who work the land, or for consumers, as US Senator Tammy Baldwin, a fast-track skeptic, has long argued. One of a number of Democrats elected in 2012 from states where rural votes play a critical role in deciding elections, Baldwin says, “U.S. trade representatives must pursue fair trade—not free trade—which means ensuring greater market access for American agricultural products abroad while protecting America’s farm families.”
For this to happen, however, Congress must retain what Farmers Union President Roger Johnson refers to as “a real say in the process.”
“It is imperative for our negotiators to focus on the huge U.S. trade deficit,” the NFU leader explained. “Just increasing exports, while increasing imports at even faster rates, is a recipe for continued and even larger trade deficits, which have a negative effect on U.S. growth, jobs and our standard of living. Currency manipulation must be effectively dealt with, or any minor advantages gained in other parts of the agreements can be easily and rapidly outweighed by manipulated currency values.”
In addition to the NFU, several other groups that represent working farmers have been pointed in their opposition to fast track, and in their broader criticisms of TPP negotiations. The National Family Farm Coalition, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Rural Coalition/Coalición Rural all signed on to a recent letter opposing fast track. So, too, did the group Family Farm Defenders, who said, “As Congress considers the TPP, we need to express our opposition—not only to convince our elected officials that this will just lead to more economic chaos on top of the current crisis, but to also let our friends across the Pacific know that they are not alone in opposing free-trade deals that are only designed to profit the one percent.”
Trade agreements are broad. They touch on every area of the US economy. They are always announced with great fanfare, and many promises.
But promises are not enough.
There have to be measures of accountability. And those standards are best established in a transparent process that includes Congress and the American people.
“Trade agreements must be a fair deal for all parties—farmers, workers, and consumers, both in the United States and abroad,” says the NFU’s Johnson. “Previous trade deals haven’t lived up to this standard, so Congress should have full opportunity to review and amend provisions of a trade agreement, consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”
That is a logical stance, and one that is well understood outside Washington.
Harry Reid is no fool. He recognizes that using fast track to promote new “NAFTA on steroids” trade agreements is bad policy—and bad politics.