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US: The politics of pressure, Warren-style

The Obama administration’s TransPacific Trade Pact hits an unanticipated speed bump in the form of Senate Democrats. This is more than just part of the normal business in the Senate because it has real implications for the 2016 presidential race already heating up. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at how it all fits together.

If anyone ever needed a clearer demonstration of the difference between the American form of a presidential/congressional government and a parliamentary system, a perfect example has just occurred in Washington. In an initial vote in the Senate, that body refused to authorise the president to obtain “fast track authority” for the big, big TransPacific Trade Partnership now being hammered out by twelve nations. And this vote also sheds a bit of light on the way the 2016 primary and general election season may be shaping up, in addition to being a snapshot of the declining power of incumbent President Obama. Lots of lessons here to watch.

Fast track authority is important, even if it takes readers into some more arcane elements of the US government system. Simply put, since the US Constitution gives the Senate the responsibility to approve treaties, any treaty must gain Senate approval before it is ratified. And that, of course, means senators can (and almost certainly would) propose, vote on, and (presumably) pass amendments or instructions to the president regarding any treaty. Trade treaties (like nuclear arms reduction treaties), in particular, are subject to very close scrutiny, debate and engagement by every corporate federation, union, interest group, lobbying group, and NGO under the sun. Everybody has a dog in such fights.

In order to get such a proposed treaty out of the Senate without so many amendments that the treaty in question must then be renegotiated with all participating countries such that a trade treaty never gets to the end of the process of actually coming into final ratification, the concept of fast track authority was established back in 1974 by law. In short, it means Congress cedes to the president the ability to negotiate a trade treaty without fear of a slew of crippling and niggling amendments – and requires that the Senate decide on a negotiated treaty via a simple yes/no vote. But, in order to authorise fast trade authority for a particular negotiation, the Senate must first pass such a measure by at least 60 out of 100 votes.

But on Tuesday, 12 May, a first, initial attempt to achieve such authorisation for fast track authority for the Obama administration to finish up the international horse-trading on the TPTP – failed to reach that magic 60 votes and so it failed to pass. On Wednesday, Senate leaders announced they had reached an agreement to reconsider – and likely approve – this fast-track authority for Obama to reach trade deals after all and so the Senate will start voting on a series of measures Thursday. But the first vote was a big, symbolic smack across the chops for the president.

The initial measure did gain 52 senatorial votes but it was eight votes short of the necessary minimum. More ominously, still, only one Democratic senator actually supported it. As Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah told the media afterwards (presumably without a visible smirk), “It is the president’s party. It’s amazing to me that they would do this to the president on a bill of this magnitude.” Indeed, such an outcome would have been unthinkable in the Parliaments of the UK, Germany, France, and Japan – or South Africa – of course. And it shows the basic dynamic of American political parties that have largely been more like loose coalitions of politicians than lock-step, well-ordered machines, although the current Republican Party has, in the past generation, become much more that than previously.

Or as AP reporting on the vote explained, “The outcome of Tuesday’s Senate vote stunned the Capitol and highlighted Democratic divisions on trade heading into a presidential election year with control of the Senate at stake. Obama says it’s essential for US goods and services to have easier access to other countries in a globalising economy, while many Democrats and the labour unions that back them still feel the pain of job losses they blame on earlier trade deals and fear more could be yet to come. The vote also laid bare the strained relations between Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have spent years complaining of neglect by a president who tends grudgingly, if at all, to the relationship-building aspects of politics.”

Exploring this initial outcome further, The Washington Post reported, “A seemingly unstoppable coalition of the powerful assembled to advance the TransPacific Partnership trade bill: A Democratic president aligned with the Republican majority in both chambers of Congress and the full lobbying might of Corporate America. But on Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Democratic minority delivered a surprise defeat to President Obama and a severe setback to one of the last few items on his presidential agenda. They blocked consideration of ‘fast track’ trade authority – a crucial vehicle to get the Pacific trade pact through Congress.

“The victors: the ascendant populist wing of the Democratic Party, and its spiritual leader, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. ‘Over and over, America’s workers have taken the brunt of bad trade deals,’ the former Harvard professor and scourge of big business told a gathering of the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank, hours before Tuesday’s vote. ‘We can’t keep pushing through trade deals that benefit multinational companies at the expense of workers,’ she added, with theatrical urgency. ‘Government cannot continue to be the captive of the rich and powerful. Working people cannot be forced to give up more and more as they get squeezed harder and harder.’”

Several things were swinging into operation simultaneously to achieve this startling result. First is the declining power of the Democratic incumbent president to be able to mobilise any kind of political or moral force upon his own party (let alone the fact that the opposition controls both congressional houses), now that his term of office expires in less than two years.

Second, of course, is that the old protectionist impulse on the part of the Democrats has been emboldened, now that that party no longer effectively represents much of the country’s agricultural heartland. US agriculture has world-class competitiveness in many product categories (and is a major export earner). As a result, the elected representatives of states with large agricultural export sectors are very solicitous of any complaints about any trade restrictions on US agricultural exports. South African DTI Minister Rob Davies has heard this loud and clear over chicken parts exports from the US to South Africa in recent months. (Yes, of course, American sugar producers remain more protectionist than most, but that is partly because US sugar production, primarily from sugar beets, can be under-priced by sugar from sugar cane exports by many tropical states; but let’s put that aside for the moment.)

Moreover, as far as trade legislation goes, the Democratic Party is increasingly responsive to pressures on such highly symbolic issues from NGOs that represent opposition to the presumably implacable forces of globalisation, from unions concerned over trade negotiations that may lead to the sacrifice of domestic jobs or disadvantage intellectual property protections, and from a more general sense that the still-classified portions of this treaty may comprise what could be construed as “give-aways” to big corporations at the expense of the little guy.

Mixed in with all this, for the Democrats, is growing pressure by its senatorial left wing, now represented publicly, primarily, by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (and by Bernie Sanders of Vermont to some degree as well). The arguments against the TPTP appear to be – mostly – the charge that the TPTP unfairly benefits the rich and the powerful and disadvantages the poor, the working class and minorities. (Okay, Warren isn’t running for the presidential nomination this time around and Sanders is not officially a Democrat, but he has announced he is challenging Hillary Clinton for the nomination for the party anyway. And Warren’s goal appears to be to push the likely nominee strongly towards this kind of opposition to treaties like the TPTP.)

But, even if the president gains fast track authorisation the second or third time around in a vote, he will have been put on highly public notice that big chunks of his own party are potentially opposed to virtually any TPTP deal with that big list of big trading nations along the Pacific littoral. Or, as The Washington Post noted after the vote, “Senate free-traders will likely find a way to revive the bill, but Tuesday’s defeat will embolden opponents in the House, where the free-trade package already faced trouble. However the trade debate is resolved, Tuesday’s defeat in the Senate is likely to be a turning point, because it shows that the populists are now firmly in control of the Democratic Party. Anger over growing inequality has reached critical mass, and a backlash has begun against a political system that has, over the last three decades, allowed 100 per cent of all income growth to go to the wealthiest 10 per cent. The trade deal has for now become the victim of that anger – less because of the details of the TPP than because it hasn’t been accompanied by more protections and assistance for American workers.”

China is not part of this proposed pact, but if it were, it would probably make its approval even more problematic than it is already, given the criticism of China’s low wage exports that ignore environmental concerns, and its presumed currency exchange rate manipulation in order to under-price export goods, among other issues. It is not clear yet, but it is even possible the African Growth and Opportunity Act may end up being entangled in all this acrimony, even though it is not an international treaty. Nevertheless, some of the same arguments can apply to it, just as they can be applied to the proposed TPTP – and AGOA must approved by various congressional committees before it gets to the respective floors of the House and Senate for final votes, reconciliation between two differing versions, and then, finally, signed by the president to sign it into law.

All of this takes us into the upcoming presidential election season because Republican actual, declared candidates and would-be, might-be candidates are already gearing up to pillory Hillary Clinton over the TPTP, even if they, themselves, are supportive of the trade deal. The aim here would presumably be to paint her as, variously, being insensitive to American job preservation from cheap foreign competition, less than sincerely supportive of her own expressed campaign aim of improving income equality, or simply unable to figure out whether she was for the TPTP (as a member of the Obama administration) before she was against it, in attempting to become his successor in the White House.

Of course the Republicans will have their own frolics amongst themselves, as the list of likely or declared candidates grows ever larger. People like Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz of Florida, Kentucky and Texas have officially declared their candidacies, along with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, appealing to the grits and God constituency, and renowned neurosurgeon – and political neophyte – Ben Carson. Playing “I ran a big business so I can run the White House” is former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as well. There will be others, almost certainly Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, and Chris Christie of New Jersey. And maybe a couple more as time goes by.

But the 800-pound gorilla in the ballroom for the GOP is, of course, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. While the TPTP can become a real snarl, tripwire and stumbling block for the presumptive Democratic candidate, depending on how Hillary Clinton handles it, the Iraq War may end up being the Republicans’ unexploded hand grenade to pass among themselves in their own respective campaigns for the nomination. If undeclared candidate Jeb Bush’s awkward juggling act over Iraq policy in a recent interview is any indication, each of these candidates may end up smacking each other in their many debates and interviews, as they endlessly rehash the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq, as they try to support the intervention, but explain that the current mess is all Obama’s fault. Asked if he would have done the same thing his brother did back in 2003, if he knew what he knows now, the former Florida governor largely booted the issue away – and then complained he misheard or misunderstood the question, or perhaps even that the dog ate his crib sheet – or whatever.

So, stay tuned for this one. The Democrats are going to stage an in-house fight over how best to frame and then deal with the potent issue of equality in the form of an economic policy debate (even as they simultaneously try to show that trade benefits everyone and that the economy is healing). Meanwhile, Republicans still need to figure out how to cope the toxic historic legacy of the George W Bush administration – in the rugby scrum of a primary fight that is shaping up for them with as many as a dozen candidates. DM

Photo: US President Barack Obama (L) and then candidate for United States Senate Elizabeth Warren (R) wave to a crowd of donators during a campaign event at the Boston Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 25 June 2012. EPA/CJ GUNTHER

Read more:

  • Trade offers contrast between Obama, Senate Democrats at the AP;
  • Democrats hand Obama a stinging defeat on trade deal at the Washington Post;
  • Tuesday’s 44-to-1 vote against Obama’s position confirms that Warren’s populists now dominate the Democratic Party – and if Obama wants to retain a semblance of relevance, he’ll join them. Democrats abandon Obama on trade deal. A column by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post;
  • O.P. Seeks Strategy for Debates Amid Expanding Candidate List at the New York Times;
  • 2016 Presidential Election Candidate Tracker – Who Is Running for President (and Who’s Not)? At the New York Times;
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