Dana Milbank
Opinion writer October 12, 2011

It was a(nother) great day to be a member of the Washington elite.

On Wednesday afternoon, the House was steamrolling toward passage of a trio of free-trade agreements without a whisper of objection from the Republican side. Finally, hours into the debate, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) rose to appeal to his fellow Tea Partyers to heed the people who elected them.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“Here we have roughly 9.1 percent unemployment in this country, due in no small part to the Washington elite jamming these job-destroying trade agreements down our throats,” Jones pleaded on the House floor. “It’s time we started listening to the will of the American people, doing what’s in the best interest of the American people, not in the best interest of the foreign nationals who desperately want to take our jobs.”

It was a passionate speech but useless. Lawmakers, including the overwhelming majority of Tea Party Republicans, voted in support of the three trade deals, which had been at the top of corporate America’s wish list.

That was just one of the day’s party favors for corporations. Hours earlier, House Speaker John Boehner made clear he would guard the corporate elite’s interests in avoiding a trade war with China. He refused to take up a bill that would have punished China for its currency ma­nipu­la­tion, saying he had “grave concerns.” (The bill would have passed easily if it had the chance.)

Boehner and his Republican colleagues aren’t necessarily wrong in their desire to expand trade with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, as they did Wednesday, or to prevent a tit-for-tat with China. But the Republican support for the free-trade deals, and the leadership’s refusal to consider the China legislation, show where the power still resides in Washington.

For all the talk of populist foment – the Tea Party on the right and the new Occupy Wall Street movement on the left – business interests remain firmly in control. Forced to choose between their voters and their donors, lawmakers don’t hesitate before choosing the latter.

There is little doubt about where the Tea Party faithful stands on free trade. A year ago, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 61 percent of Tea Party supporters thought free-trade agreements had hurt the country, compared to 53 percent of Americans overall who held that view. Shortly after that, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 24 percent of Tea Party supporters thought free-trade agreements were good for America.

Such sentiments supported Sen. Lindsey Graham’s position when the South Carolina Republican argued Wednesday afternoon that House Republican leaders should take up the China-punishing bill, which cleared the Senate with 63 votes on Tuesday. “It is very important that House Republican leadership allow a vote on this legislation,” Graham said at a news conference with fellow Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and three Democratic colleagues. Those trying to avoid a House vote are “miscalculating where the country is on this issue,” he said.

Of course, Boehner et al. haven’t miscalculated at all. They aren’t scheduling a vote precisely because they know the anti-China sentiment would prevail. Graham gave a more accurate assessment of the situation when he said: “We’re opposed by a lot of people who have an interest in keeping the status quo.”

Some Tea Party Republicans in the House, such as Rep. Allen West (Fla.), joined the call for a vote on the China bill, but Boehner has no plans for the “dangerous” legislation. “What I don’t believe is appropriate is for the Congress of the United States to take this issue up and to do it within a legislative forum,” he told reporters Wednesday. He warned of a “very severe risk of a trade war.”

A similar division has appeared among Democrats over the free-trade bills. Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) complained on the floor that the trade legislation “won’t do anything to reduce our 9 percent unemployment, but the big companies and the banks want it, so President Obama is going to give in to the Washington elite once again.”

Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) actually praised the Tea Party as she denounced lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “Is anybody paying attention?” she demanded. “This is just another example of powerful Washington elites being totally out of step with Main Street and the American people.” Beckoning to the Republican side and then to the Democratic side, she said: “I’m proud of the Tea Partyers who are out there organizing, and I’m proud of the Occupy Wall Street people because they’re saying you folks you are out of step up here in Washington.”

They may be out of step with their constituents. But they’re perfectly aligned with the people who fund their campaigns.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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