Over the weekend the odds of a GOP takeover of the Senate after Tuesday’s midterm election went up — which means that the speculation about whether anything of substance will get enacted into law is also heating up. Intriguingly, three stories have suggested that there is one possible area where a Senate takeover increases the likelihood of President Obama getting what he wants: trade deals.
First, there was Foreign Policy’s John Hudson on Halloween:
The administration is currently negotiating two proposed free-trade agreements with the European Union and key nations in the Asia-Pacific region: the cumbersomely named Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Obama has been pushing for the deals for years because he says they will increase U.S. exports and create millions of jobs at home.
Though scores of obstacles remain in the way of both trade deals, some of the strongest opposition has come from congressional Democrats, who’ve blocked the president’s request for “fast-track” trade authority and raised concerns about the impact of global trade on union jobs and wages.
If the Senate flips, pro-trade Republicans will dominate key committees that deal with trade policy and relegate more protectionist Democrats to the minority. Unlike most other issues, Republicans are increasingly signaling a willingness to work with Obama to strengthen his negotiating position with partners overseas.
A day later, the New York Times’ Peter Baker and Michael Shear made a similar point:
Without waiting for results from elections on Tuesday that few in the White House expect to go well for Mr. Obama, top aides have met for weeks to plot the final quarter of his presidency. Anticipating a less friendly Congress, they are mapping possible compromises with Republicans to expand trade, overhaul taxes and build roads and bridges….
[T]he three areas most cited are trade, corporate taxes and infrastructure. Democrats like Mr. Reid have resisted giving Mr. Obama trade negotiating authority, so a Republican Senate may be better for the president on this issue.
Obama needs special authority, known as fast track, to negotiate trade deals that Congress can accept or reject, but cannot change. It would smooth the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is under discussion with 11 other nations, and help advance separate negotiations with the 28-member European Union.
Fast-track legislation was introduced in January but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would not allow a vote. Many Democrats fear that opening markets to countries with lower wages and standards will cost U.S. jobs. Republicans tend to be more supportive, seeing more trade as an economic aid.
With Republicans favored to take control of the Senate and expand their House majority in Tuesday’s election, trade could become a rare point of agreement between a Republican Congress and the White House.
Is there anything to this, or is it all just hopeful speculation? Hudson’s story, which offers the most detail, suggests that maybe it’s grounded in reality. It’s true that Harry Reid had been an impediment to getting trade promotion authority passed since he scotched the idea of even voting on it earlier this year. And even 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls in the Senate are saying encouraging things about ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership once it’s been negotiated.
I confess to having a stake in this speculation coming true, as I have a bet with the Chicago Council of Global Affairs’ Philip Levy about the likelihood of some of these trade deals getting ratified before the end of Obama’s term of office. So I really hope that this speculation turns out to be true.
I do have my doubts, however, for two reasons. The first is that I suspect the GOP might use trade promotion authority as a bargaining chip to try to constrain the Obama administration’s recent forays into bypassing Congress on immigration, climate change and Iran. In other words, there is no way that the GOP passes trade promotion authority merely because it ideologically supports free trade. Anything that would help the Obama administration earn a legislative win will come with a price. And I strongly suspect that the administration places a higher priority on those two areas than all of the trade deals in Mike Froman‘s hopper.
The second reason is that as both TPP and T-TIP negotiations have dragged on, it’s becoming clear that the United States is not the only roadblock to completed trade deals. On TPP, it’s now Japan that is proving to be the laggard, and it’s far from obvious that Shinzo Abe has the political wherewithal to get an agreement ratified. On T-TIP, new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has split negotiating authority between his Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans to placate Europeans worried about the proposed investor-state dispute settlement in T-TIP. The point is, Japanese and EU trade negotiators are facing their own domestic constraints.
Now, if a GOP-controlled Senate were to give the president trade promotion authority, it might signal to Pacific Rim and European Union leaders that it’s worth investing some political capital to complete the negotiations because the odds of ratification improved. That ain’t beanbag. But it’s also unlikely to happen, for the first reason outlined above.
To be clear, I don’t think a GOP takeover of the Senate worsens the chances for these trade deals. I just don’t think it improves their odds all that much. Which means that Froman should have plenty of time to craft more Foreign Affairs essays about what he’d like to do on trade policy if only he could.
Am I missing anything?