TRADE-PROMOTION legislation has passed the Senate, and House Republican leaders hope to bring up the bill for a vote by the end of this week. The major question holding things up is how many Democrats can be persuaded to support it — which is one of those only-in-Washington problems. Historically, the GOP has been supportive of free-trade deals, and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is no exception. Consequently, enough votes might be found within the House’s 245-member Republican majority to pass the bill, or nearly enough.
Since both the bill and the trade deal are President Obama’s priorities and Mr. Obama is a Democrat, however, it’s politically impossible for Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to move the bill without some support from House Democrats. Rounding up the requisite couple dozen Democratic votes has proved difficult and, so, here we are, waiting for a time-consuming lobbying free-for-all to play out — rather than dispensing with such wasteful uncertainty and moving forward with a bill that’s good for the United States economically and strategically.
The fact that only about 10 percent of the 188 Democrats in the House have been willing to declare themselves in favor of a Democratic president’s free-trade agenda says a lot about the current state of American politics in general, and the Democratic Party in particular — none of it good.
For much of the postwar era, free trade was a bipartisan cause. Significant numbers of Democratic lawmakers recognized that the benefits exceed the costs and cast votes in favor of the trade-expanding agendas of both Republican and Democratic presidents. To these Democrats, progressivism included embracing the forces of global economic change and seeking to channel them in America’s favor — and in favor of the developing world. On balance, the expansion of prosperity both in the United States and abroad has vindicated this view.
Now we have a much more ideologically polarized Congress; forces led by organized labor are using the current battle to polarize it further by enforcing a strict Democratic party line against trade agreements. The high-pressure campaign is forcing even Democrats from an export-dependent state like California to hesitate or openly oppose the bill. In our area, only three House Democrats — Gerald E. Connolly and Don Beyer of Virginia, and John Delaney of Maryland — have found the courage to declare their “yes” votes, though Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), whose record is generally pro-free trade, has tacitly helped by remaining uncommitted. This gives political space to more junior Democrats who might want to vote “yes.”
Vote counters tell us they think the actual tally of Democratic “yeses” will indeed meet the politically necessary minimum for trade promotion’s passage, and then some. We certainly hope so, because any other result would represent a setback for the U.S. economy and for the country’s standing in the world.