HERE IS the state of affairs on free trade after Friday’s dramatic votes in the House: President Obama wants trade-promotion authority, known as fast-track, from Congress to strengthen the hand of his negotiators working on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. A bipartisan majority of the Senate has already voted for fast-track authority. A bipartisan majority of the House is on record in favor of it as well. Yet none of this matters, because most House Democrats exploited an arcane point of procedure to cast fast-track authority into legislative limbo — with no clear means of escape.
This blow to the United States’ standing among its Pacific Rim allies, and to majority rule, is not the result of Mr. Obama’s allegedly high-handed personality, which, according to some reports, alienated Democrats in the final furious hours of lobbying. No one has had frostier dealings with the president than Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) or Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), yet they managed to put that aside for the sake of a shared goal: the passage of fast-track authority.
No, what we have here is a desperate, and somewhat cynical, maneuver by the opponents of fast-track authority, and it goes like this. Trade Adjustment Assistance is an aid program for workers displaced by imports; Democrats and their allies in organized labor have backed it for decades. It runs out in September, but in order to reassure Hill Democrats and attract votes for fast-track authority, Mr. Obama insisted on linking its passage to a bill reauthorizing (and expanding) the assistance program for six years. The Republicans agreed. However, once organized labor realized that it was not going to be able to deny the president a majority for fast-track authority, it began trying to stop that measure by pressuring House Democrats to kill the assistance program — and labor leaders succeeded, because a majority of Democrats, including, crucially, minority leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), went along.
In short, the forces opposing fast-track authority turned a long-standing Democratic Party policy priority into a short-term political hostage. So what if the assistance program — intended to help workers displaced by trade regardless of whether the president’s new free-trade measures are ever passed — is now on course to expire in September? Apparently opponents despise free trade even more than they like helping its purported victims.
Mr. Obama gamely described the situation as a “procedural snafu” akin to the short-lived Senate filibuster that quickly gave way to that body’s eventual “yes” on trade-promotion authority. There is some talk of a do-over of a vote on the assistance program as early as next week. We hope there’s a way out, but in the meantime Democrats will have to consider what this turn of events says about their party’s approach to the global economic challenges of the 21st century. As Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) told his colleagues Friday, shortly before casting one of 28 courageous Democratic votes in favor of the president’s plan: “Today’s vote is about America’s future — who will shape it? It is not shaped by a recitation of grievance. It is not shaped by making trade a symbol of all that we find bad in economic progress. . . . We must address the future for future generations of American workers.”