On Wednesday, labor unions, immigrant groups and environmental activists gathered in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center for the latest of many news conferences decrying a request by President Obama to speed up approval of a massive free trade deal.
The White House and congressional Republican brass are allied in a full-court press for lawmakers to pass “trade promotion authority,” or “fast track,” for a series of international trade agreements. Populist Democrats are pushing back — but so are some on the far right. These unlikely political partners share some of the left’s objections to Obama’s push on free trade. The groups diverge on other issues: some on the right, for example, worry whether the president will make trade free enough.
“We have had wonderful working relationships with everybody, even people we’re not too sure about, right, Rosa?” asked Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), in her speech to the hundreds of gathered steelworkers and tree huggers, speaking to ringleader Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) "I mean, people we don’t even talk to.”
Slaughter knows they need those “people we’re not too sure about” -- tea partyers, really -- to round up enough votes to kill the bill, which the administration has said it needs to make the trade deal happen at all. But with this strange-bedfellows alliance, the two factions stay separate, like oil and water.
"We count our side, but we have good reason to believe there are a lot of people on the Republican side who feel the same way,” Slaughter said, in the hallway after her speech. "It’s not that we’re not talking to them, we just don’t put any pressure on them.” DeLauro, however, confirmed that cross-party communication was minimal. “I haven’t talked to my Republican colleagues,” she said.
“We have had wonderful working relationships with everybody, even people we’re not too sure about, right, Rosa? I mean, people we don’t even talk to.”— Rep. Louise Slaughter
At this point, it’s difficult to determine how many conservatives will actually buck their leadership and vote against fast track. In 2013, 23 House Republicans sent a letter opposing it, and Rep. Walter Jones (D-N.C.) now figures it's up to "30 or 40." But a spokeswoman for Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) says she expects to release a letter endorsing fast track, with 27 Republican House freshmen signing on. (Still, that leaves 16 who didn’t.)
It’s hard enough to hold together a coalition when you’re able to keep track of everyone’s votes. When you’re not, because the two sides detest each other on almost every issue, it becomes darn near impossible. But this time, there might be enough energy from Congress's far left and far right flanks to stop the deal from happening — if they can defeat the moderates within their own parties.
With the exception of a sparsely attended news conference by a collection of libertarian groups at the end of January, the tea party opponents to fast track authority don’t really have the manpower of their allies on the left.
Rather, they have people like Stephani Scruggs, the Florida-based former co-chair of Glenn Beck’s 912 Project, who was in town for the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. Brandishing a long list of signatures from tea party groups, she took a few days to tell House Republicans — especially freshmen — why they should vote against something they’re supposed to be for: Free trade.
The first thing they need to know is that this isn’t really about free trade, she says.
"The bottom line is this,” says Scruggs, sitting in the cafeteria of the Rayburn House Office Building after a long day of canvassing with fellow conservative activists Crista Huff and Dena Espenscheid. "It’s incredibly hypocritical that Republican leadership that just sued this president for executive overreach now wants to give him constitutional powers. For me it’s a black and white issue. It’s constitutional. And I don’t care if it’s Barack Obama or George Bush or Bill Clinton."
The scary thing about fast track authority, for opponents on the left and the right, is that it forces Congress to accept or reject the treaty as negotiated, with no amendments or filibusters. And at the moment, few people know what they’d even be voting on, since the U.S. Trade Representative only allows members of Congress to see the treaty in person, without taking notes, and swears them to secrecy.
That’s mostly what Scruggs focuses on as a coordinator of an ad hoc coalition called End Global Governance, which seeks to “protect American sovereignty” from intergovernmental treaties and multinational institutions, and director of Coalition for a Strong America, which aims to counter the influence of “well financed unions." But when Scruggs also dives into the agreement itself, she starts to sound a lot like the liberals she usually fights against.
Take the issue of so-called “currency manipulation,” or the strategy of some countries to devalue their currency in order to keep their own exports cheap. Labor groups have pressed the administration to address currency manipulation in the deal, which the White House has resisted out of concerns it could constrain the United States' own monetary policy tools.
"If we’re not going to address currency manipulation, what are we even talking about?” Scruggs asks. "You can talk about tariffs all you want, but all Singapore has to do to recoup the losses that they would’ve had under tariffs, is tweak their currency."
Or take the Investor State Dispute Settlement, a provision that allows foreign companies to sue governments if they feel wronged, which Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) decried in a Washington Post op-ed (the White House countered that attack, but in another sign of the mixed-up politics of trade, the Cato Institute sided with Warren).
"Let’s say the Honda plant gets upset with Alabama’s water quality standards. All they have to do is go before a world court and say that it impeded their expected profits,” Scruggs says. “We could potentially have cities and states go bankrupt overnight over one judgment, and turn into Detroit.” (That’s probably hyperbole, but you get the point.)
Overall, the tea party trio in the Rayburn cafeteria espouses the same thing as labor groups have for years: Demand that other countries raise their standards before throwing open the doors to trade.
"You tell them, 'When you get your act together, then we will consider doing business with your country,’ ” Huff said. Espenscheid even used the term “fair trade,” a typically liberal talking point, saying that labor standards are so low in some of the developing countries that are party to the agreement that there’s no way American businesses can compete.
"I’m all for the free market,” Espenscheid says. “But nobody knows what that means anymore."
"I’m all for the free market. But nobody knows what that means anymore."— Dena Espenscheid
In fact, some of the anti-fast track conservative groups worry that the Obama administration, even by negotiating greater access to foreign markets, is actually engaging in “managed trade.”
“America wins because we do a better job of creating those products, we have better innovation and we have smarter marketers. That’s what we think of when we think of free trade,” says Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government. “We don’t think of, 'you’re allowed to sell another 100,000 chickens into Japan.' That’s just cutting a deal for how much of a market you’re allowed to infiltrate.”
Manning has tried to bring other tea party groups into the anti-fast track campaign by arguing that Obama shouldn’t be trusted negotiating trade deals in secret — calling it “Obamatrade,” in a reference to the derisive term for the Affordable Care Act — and got most of the major organizations to sign on to a letter to that effect in mid-January. But when it comes to burning up the phone lines on Capitol Hill, they just don’t care about trade as much as they do about things like immigration and the national debt.
“It’s not a real hot issue, frankly,” said Tea Party Patriots spokesman Kevin Broughton.
Part of the problem that fast track’s tea party opponents face is that many of their one-time allies on Capitol Hill have abandoned them this time around.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for example, was once a tea party hero for his efforts to cut the budget. That faded when he started compromising with Democrats, and in recent months he’s become one of the loudest proponents of trade promotion authority on the Hill. Even the filibustering Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) expressed support for fast track, saying it’s a structural shift in order to facilitate free trade agreements being negotiated and adopted."
Then there are the think tanks: The tea party-friendly Heritage Foundation has been guardedly in favor of granting trade promotion authority to the president, arguing that it could be tightly tailored to make sure the agreement comports with free trade ideals (i.e., doesn’t have too many labor or environmental protections baked in). The Heartland Institute, which helped get the tea party started, thinks fast track is fine as long as Congress indicates it’s actually willing to kill an unsatisfactory deal.
“That is the very threat that keeps a president from overstepping his bounds in tailoring an agreement,” says research director S.T. Karnick.
The problem is, renegotiation according to the U.S. Congress’ desires is no easy feat with 13 countries involved; rejecting the agreement the first time could make it fall apart entirely. Legislators recognize that, and if they’re not able to amend the treaty, might accept a lot of distasteful things just to allow it to happen at all.
That’s why, for Manning, getting conservatives to focus on the part of their brains that opposes executive overreach and what he calls "crony capitalism" rather than the part that favors free trade can be a challenge.
“Free trade, it’s the shiny object. You say, 'Yes, that’s good,' and it’s kind of built in to our DNA,” Manning says. “When you say, 'In this case, it’s not good,' you have to get people to reevaluate core principles.”
This article has been updated with further information about those for against trade promotion authority.