Did Frank Underwood kill Obama’s trade agenda?

Rep. Frank Underwood and his chief of staff plot in "House of Cards." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix)
Rep. Frank Underwood and his chief of staff plot in "House of Cards." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix)

If President Obama's trade agenda crashes in a heap, or the Transpacific Partnership disintegrates, put the blame on Kevin Spacey's machinations in "House of Cards." The logic isn't necessarily airtight so follow close:

1) Members of Congress (real ones) demand that the (real) president do more to prevent countries from manipulating their currency -- effectively cutting the price of their exports and underselling U.S. manufacturers -- and refuse to approve proposed trade treaties unless it happens.

2) China is one of those alleged manipulators, and while it is not part of any of the trade treaties currently under discussion, it is the country most everyone thinks about when they think about the currency issue.

3) The writers of "House of Cards," providing the closest brush ever between the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and popular culture, think about the issue (at least a little), and build a piece of the show's plot around a U.S. administration contemplating steps against China because of their currency policies.

4) Chinese officials watch "House of Cards," take note of the currency theme, and also take note that nothing of substance really happens in the United States because the elected and appointed leaders scurry around putting out brushfires and acting like the cast of "Caligula."

5) They recommit to their currency policies, confident that nothing will continue to happen.

6) Nothing continues to happen, and the nothing extends to Obama's trade deals, which can't clear Congress without some sort of action on currency.

"Chinese officials who watch "House of Cards" must be laughing," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), on a telephone call (a real one) on Wednesday to discuss a new report arguing that unfair currency practices in China and elsewhere are costing the United States millions of jobs. "They are laughing at Frank Underwood and at us, at policymakers that continue to cave."

"House of Cards" "is not exactly a documentary of the U.S. Congress. Just the fact that there is a white Democrat from South Carolina would tell you that," he continued. But "They (the Chinese) are astute...The Chinese practice trade according to their national interest. We practice trade according to a twenty year old economics textbook."

The call was joined by Michigan Democrat Sander Levin, and between them it was another nail pounded into a trade push that Obama has put at the center of his economic policy. The Democratic leadership in Congress says it is intent on delaying approval of a bill that would let any new trade treaties move more easily through Congress, in part because they want to first get a close look at the details of the TPP -- and be sure their priorities, like currency, are addressed.

That, in effect, turns on its head the process that the administration hoped it could follow -- get the "fast track" law in place, then wrap up the TPP and bring it home for reasonably speedy approval and no amendments that would have to be taken back to the 11 nations involved in the negotiations.

The currency issue is a tough one for U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman to deal with. When it comes up in public he defers to the folks at Treasury, which is the agency that traditionally bashes China on its exchange rates, and which has had some luck in the past in getting them to let the renminbi drift higher in value (and it has, over the years).

Getting a sort of supranational currency court established in a free trade treaty, however, is a heavy lift among countries that may be willing to drop some tariffs or agree to some common regulations but may not want to feel like their central bank or monetary policy is being hamstrung by the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Froman is "reasonable and smart and knows his stuff," said Brown, "but the administration is not as responsive to Congressional and our country's concerns as they need to be."

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