Don’t Blame (Just) Obama

 As anyone who has even casually skimmed recent headlines would already be aware, President Barack Obama’s international trade agenda is basically stuck. Blame Washington, D.C.’s familiar political gridlock. As the incumbent president, Obama, who has never made trade a high priority, naturally is getting the lion’s share of the blame. But while the president is hardly beyond criticism, don’t just blame him. Trade became a wedge issue long before Obama became president. And many of the dubious policies that Obama is being criticized for endorsing — protectionist Buy America laws, complex and basically unworkable special rules for textiles, regressive high U.S. tariffs on shoes and clothing, and so forth — were inherited from his predecessors of both political parties.

So anyone who really wants to play the blame game — and in Washington, D.C., who doesn’t? — would be well-advised to look beyond the White House to both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

Scratch deeply enough into any policy failures in Washington, and Congress is usually the culprit. On trade, Senate and House Democrats are basically controlled by the party’s union-dominated protectionist wing that fears global competition as a threat to American jobs. The more encouraging news should be that most Republican lawmakers’ instincts are that trade expansion and free markets are good things. Still, Republican leadership on trade has become an oxymoron, as a look at the recent record of the House Ways and Means Committee reveals.

To take a glimpse into how U.S. trade politics are (not) working in Obama’s Washington, the story begins with the unfortunate recent headlines.

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In his Jan. 28 State of the Union 2014 message Obama asked Congress to pass legislation giving him so-called Fast Track trade promotion authority (fast track is sometimes called by the acronym TPA, for the latter three words). This would allow the president to negotiate trade-liberalizing pacts with the European Union and important Asia-Pacific trading partners. Fast Track legislation would require Congress to vote either Yea or Nay to any trade deal that Obama would submit for ratification. Such a special rule would bypass the inevitable crippling amendments that lawmakers would offer on behalf of protectionist constituencies — crippling because the amendments would undo the carefully crafted negotiations.

But the next day, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) warned Obama “to not push this right now.” The feisty Reid, who controls the senate calendar, bluntly said that Fast Track would not be on it. Within days, other influential leaders of the Democratic Caucus like Sen. Richard Durbin (IL) weighed in. Their clear message: we have zero interest in forcing Democrats to approve Fast Track — and thus offend the party’s protectionist wing — before the November midterm elections.

The White House protested, sort of, with spinmeisters insisting to reporters that the president still hoped to get Fast Track, sometime anyway, in an unspecified future. When Obama met on Feb. 3 with Reid and the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Michael Bennet (CO), the president never mentioned trade, according to a report by New York Times reporters Peter Baker and Ashley Parker that the White House did not dispute. Instead, Obama, Reid and Bennet talked about the upcoming November congressional elections, and how Obama might help raise money for the party’s coffers. (Reid is perhaps the most implacable opponent of international trade on the Hill. In 1994, he even voted against legislation that ratified the so-called Uruguay Round of multilateral trade liberalization that created the World Trade Organization.)

House Minority Nancy Pelosi and other prominent Democratic trade skeptics also were not shy about saying they also didn’t want to see a Fast-Track vote before the midterm elections. On Feb. 14, Vice President Joe Biden met with House Democrats and said that he “understood” their political concerns, according to other authoritative news accounts. No president has had Fast Track negotiating authority since 2007, when Pelosi, then House Speaker, killed it. Three preferential trade deals (with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama) that had been signed by Bush were not ratified by Congress until 2011, after the Republicans had won control of the House.

Stalled in Singapore

Predictably, Obama’s trade agenda stalled in Singapore on Feb. 25, after several days of talks between U.S. trade negotiators and their official counterparts in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman had hoped to seal the deal in Singapore. But when he arrived in Singapore, Froman quickly learned that his counterparts were not willing to reveal their bottom lines. “If I were a minister from one of the TPP countries, I would be extremely reluctant to put my most sensitive items on the table,” explains Deborah Elms, a respected American trade watcher who is based in Singapore.

Elms and other veteran trade watchers point out that it would be foolish for any country to try to negotiate an end game with U.S. trade negotiators, knowing that without Fast Track, the U.S. Congress is poised to move the goal posts that would undo any “binding” trade deal that Obama might cut. Until this is fixed, the Obama trade agenda will remain stuck: no TPP deal, and no trade agreement with the European Union, either.

There will be geopolitical consequences. The longer Washington’s isolationist international trade gridlock lasts, the more other countries will move on without American participation. That has, in fact, been the trend for several years. China, Canada, Japan, the European Union, Singapore, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia and others have all been busy enhancing their economic ties with selected trading partners, while Uncle Sam has been sidelined. The latest news on that front came on March 11, when Canada and South Korea announced that they had concluded a preferential trade deal. The United States is the one country that once did the most to foster multilateral trade liberalization. But nowdays, memories of the terrible tit-for-tat protectionism of the 1930s that contributed to the devastation of World War II have faded in official Washington. The emerging 21st century story line is how America is being left behind.

Froman goes to Capitol Hill

In recent weeks, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has been prowling the corridors of Capitol Hill, doing everything he can to persuade reluctant congressional figures to grant the president the necessary Fast Track negotiating authority. While Froman’s meetings have been held behind closed doors, by all accounts the USTR has changed few if any (closed) minds.

Froman is considered an able man, and his political strength is anchored to his close relationship to Obama that dates to their days at Harvard Law School. That’s always valuable currency in Washington. But neither Froman nor the president has the stature to cajole, pressure, intimidate and otherwise move difficult members of Congress than the late Robert Strauss memorably displayed, when he served as the chief U.S. trade negotiator in the late 1970s.

Consider Froman’s recent efforts to reason with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CN), a member of the House Democratic leadership. DeLauro’s basic view of international trade blames China for stealing American jobs. She has lined up 151 Democratic lawmakers who say they will not support Fast Track legislation. A few weeks ago, Froman was observed talking with DeLauro in the halls. When he tried to reason with her, the congresswoman subjected the USTR to a shrill earful about how trade deals like the TPP were only going to “kill” more American jobs. The likes of DeLauro would never have dared to speak to Bob Strauss that way.

(DeLauro represents New Haven, an important U.S. port that brings thousands of jobs to her district. The port makes a lot of money from traffic that comes through the Panama Canal, yet DeLauro voted against the U.S.-Panama preferential trade agreement.)

Froman’s efforts to try to reason with Democratic senators have not been much more rewarding. The man he’s got to deal with first-and-foremost is Sen. Ron Wyden (OR). Wyden assumed the chairmanship of the Finance Committee in February, replacing Max Baucus, who is now the U.S. ambassador to China. (Wyden has also chaired Finance’s trade subcommittee, a position he is holding onto.)

Before he left the senate, Baucus had worked successfully with pro-trade Republicans Orrin Hatch (UT), the Finance Committee’s top Republican, and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (MI), to come up with a bipartisan Fast Track bill. But while Wyden has a history of generally supporting trade deals, he has been lukewarm at best to the carefully-crafted Baucus-Hatch-Camp compromise.

At a March 13 hearing, Wyden highlighted his declared economic priorities, which he said were to come up “innovative approaches to strengthen and expand the middle class.” His priorities involved “education,” “savings,” “tax reform,” “health care,” “strengthening the social safety net” and raising the “minimum wage.” Expanding international trade flows and passing Fast Track legislation were not mentioned.

Railing against Secrets

Wyden has developed a certain style since he was first elected to the House 33 years ago (he became a senator in 1996). Whatever the issue, he’s always looking out for ways to rail against government secrecy, while at the same time never making much effort to dig deeply.

As a member of the Intelligence Committee, Wyden frequently rails against alleged CIA secrecy abuses — as least when the cameras are around. In 2007, Wyden played a leading role in killing the nomination of John Rizzo to become the general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency. Anyone who wants a glimpse into what it is like to deal with the senator from Oregon might want to read Rizzo’s riveting account of his thirty-plus years in the CIA, Company Man. Rizzo relates that he learned only by reading an account in the New Yorker that Wyden had put a hold on his nomination in August, 2007.  Rizzo wrote that he had never spoken with Wyden. He further related that the senator had declined a routine personal “courtesy” pre-hearing meeting.

But when the CIA lawyer’s public confirmation hearing was held in September, Wyden asked Rizzo a series of questions about classified CIA operations. Rizzo understandably demurred, saying that he could not respond fully in a public setting.  “With everyone watching, he wagged his finger at me and vowed to get deeply into these issues at the closed session,” Rizzo relates of Wyden. Yet when the cameras were turned off, and that closed session was held, Wyden— along with Sens. Diane Feinstein (CA) and Carl Levin, who had also helped trash Rizzo’s nomination — failed to show up. In the face of such shabby treatment to a civil servant who had served his country for three decades, the White House ultimately was forced to withdraw Rizzo’s nomination.

Wyden has also been a vocal critic of the TPP trade talks, on grounds the White House has been negotiating the details in secret. So it raised some eyebrows on March 10, when this champion of openness in government called a “Senators’ Meeting” to talk about the TPP with USTR Mike Froman — behind closed doors. When he came out of the secret meeting, the senator wasn’t particularly forthcoming to reporters about what had transpired. “This was the first of what is going to be a series of discussions on the committee on a bipartisan basis,” he told Politico’s Doug Palmer.

While Wyden criticizes the White House’s secrecy on the TPP talks, there is nothing to prevent the senator from holding a number of informative hearings that would illuminate in great detail what’s at stake in each of more than 20 TPP chapters — without ever getting into classified U.S. negotiating positions. But that would take a certain amount of intellectual effort — and a close attention to the sort of details that all successful trade agreements turn on.

A Stacked Subcommittee

Beyond the lackluster Wyden, the Finance Committee’s trade subcommittee is stacked with anti-trade Democratic stalwarts. There’s Sherrod Brown (OH), a union ally and economic nationalist who basically speaks for the interests of the insular-looking western parts of his state. Debbie Stabenow (MI) watches out for the Detroit auto lobby. Chuck Schumer (NY) is mainly interested in punishing China. Jay Rockefeller (WVA) has long been the senator from the steel lobby. And there is Michael Bennet, the Colorado elections strategist who does not want to force Democrats to vote on Fast Track before this November’s congressional elections. Imagine being a U.S. trade negotiator who has to try explaining the benefits of trade liberalization to such a crowd.

Which brings us to the Republicans, who are generally pro-trade, pro-Fast Track, Pro-TPP and pro-T-TIP (the acronym for the Trans-Atlantic U.S.-EU trade talks that Obama has launched.) Here’s where the news should become more positive — but it doesn’t.

Reluctant Republicans

The Republicans control the House of Representatives, with a 33-seat advantage over the Democrats. Speaker of the House John Boehner (OH) has the votes to pass Fast Track. But when the president asked for that two months ago in his State of the Union address, Boehner’s reaction was tepid — while the Democrats started immediately building up a political head of steam to kill the idea.

On Jan. 29, the day after Obama’s declaration he was committed to Fast Track, Boehner said that while Republicans would support the idea, it was really up to the president to lead. “We cannot pass this bill without his help,” the Speaker said of Obama. “If this is one of his own priorities, you would think that he would have the Senate Majority Leader working with him to pass Trade Promotion Authority in order to expand opportunities for our fellow citizens.”

By passing the buck, Boehner has — so far at least — been passing up a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate real bipartisan leadership. If House Republicans were to move aggressively to pass Fast Track, Republicans would demonstrate that they will support the president on a matter of great economic importance to the country. The political beauty is that forcing the Democrats to vote for Fast Track would split the opposition party in an election year. Such opportunities for Republicans to do the right thing for the country, while embarrassing the Democrats, don’t come along every day in Washington.

Boehner, a decent but sad-looking man — perhaps because of his well-known inability to control the intransigent tea party Republicans — has had other “fast track” legislative priorities. On March 12, the Speaker pushed through by a 233-181 vote a bill that would expedite congressional lawsuits to sue Obama for failing to enforce certain federal laws. One of those, predictably, was Obama’s health-care law. The others, noted AP reporter Donna Cassata, involved steps the president has “taken to allow young immigrants to remain in the United States and the administration’s resistance to defend the federal law banning gay marriage.”

Ways and Means: No Way

Meanwhile, the Republican-led Ways and Means Committee (the House Committee that has jurisdiction over trade) hasn’t been able to pass legislation that even the Democrats also support. It’s difficult to be worse at one’s job than that.

Consider the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill. For three decades, Congress has approved bills allowing American manufacturers to import raw materials and components they need to make products without paying tariffs. The MTBs have traditionally been so devoid of controversy that they used to be passed unanimously. And why not, as the duty-free imported components are reserved for products not manufactured in the United States. There are no domestic protectionist lobbies to appease, as MTB is only aimed at helping American manufacturers become more efficient.

The previous MTB authority that allowed duty suspensions on more than 600 products expired at the end of 2012. There had been very influential warnings all year that Congress should not let such a thing happen.

Throughout 2012, the National Association of Manufacturers, saying that the absence of tariffs supported some 90,000 American jobs, repeatedly urged passage of a new MTB bill. NAM pointed out that paying duties on items that are not available in the United States constitutes an unnecessary tax on American manufacturers. On April 20, 2012, Auggie Tantillo, the top executive of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, announced that 65 Republican freshmen members of the House supported prompt passage of an MTB renewal bill. “Plain and simple, the MTB is a trade bill that is a job creator for U.S. manufacturing,” Tantillo noted. The American Apparel & Footwear Association also registered its strong support. “By reducing or suspending duties on certain imports that are not found in the United States, the MTB lowers costs for U.S. companies that depend on those imports for their competitiveness,” the AAFA reasoned in a press release on May 10, 2012. “It’s that simple.”

Despite such broad support, the MTB authority expired on Dec. 31, 2012. On July 17, 2013, Dave Camp, the Republican from Michigan who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, and also the committee’s top Democrat, Sandy Levin (also of Michigan), introduced a bill to extend the MTB on July 17, 2013.  They were joined by other key lawmakers from both parties. The Camp-Levin extension proposal to extend MTB has gone nowhere.

There’s more bad news. The Generalized System of Preferences legislation that provides duty-free access to U.S. markets for 123 U.S. trading partners, some of them among the world’s poorest countries, expired in July, 2013. In 2012 American companies imported some $19 billion worth of products covered by GSP — many of them necessary components that U.S. workers needed to manufacture products. Although both the Republican and Democratic leadership of Ways and Means have strongly supported GSP’s renewal, it hasn’t happened. Estimates are that the costs to U.S. manufacturers, who now have to pay the (unnecessary) tariffs, has been more than $750 million. Congress has been willing to let this happen.

The Ways and Means trade subcommittee held only three hearings last year: covering U.S. trade relations with Brazil, India, and the European Union. The full committee called USTR Michael Froman, who had just assumed the office, to a hearing in July. The questioning was light.

This year Chairman Dave Camp has issued 49 press releases on various topics ranging from healthcare to taxes. Two of them were about international trade. On Jan. 9, Camp noted that he had introduced Fast Track legislation, along with Sens. Max Baucus and Orrin Hatch. And on March 4, Camp issued a release commenting on Obama’s trade agenda. “TPA is my top trade priority,” he insisted. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who chairs the trade subcommittee, added: “TPA must be enacted immediately.”

In the past year, a Ways and Means Committee that was on top of its job might have held at least a dozen in-depth hearings that would have better informed the American public — and many of us in the press — on a variety of interesting international trade issues. The committee could have highlighted the stakes involved in pressing countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, and China to bring their state-owned enterprises more market-oriented. It could have highlighted what intellectual property issues in the TPP talks are all about. It could have highlighted the important contribution that imports make to sustaining American manufacturing jobs. It could have highlighted the World Trade Organization’s ongoing efforts to expand international support for multilateral trade liberalization. But the Ways and Committee has chosen to highlight —- nothing.

Blame Obama for his own contribution to the stalled U.S. trade agenda, if you will. But don’t just blame him.