This afternoon, the House of Representatives voted down the TAA and narrowly approved the TPA. The acronyms are enough to leave your head spinning and writers must type them gingerly, lest they accidentally hit the ampersand key.
The TPA is the Trade Promotion Authority, which gives the president power to approve the most sweeping free trade deal in American history with a host of Asian and Pacific Rim nations. The TAA is the Trade Adjustment Assistance, which is supposed to prevent outsourcing under the TPA and preserve American jobs. By offering both as a package, the political calculus went, Republicans would get onboard because they favor TPA’s free trade and Democrats would fall in line because they like TAA’s protectionist sops.
It didn’t work out that way. The House voted down the TAA 126-302—and since the Senate’s trade package includes TAA, that makes the House’s approval of the TPA largely irrelevant. The trade deal was stopped. Majorities from both parties sent it on its way. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave a last-minute rambling speech in opposition. The House, usually bifurcated along partisan lines, saw a bipartisan group of populists pitted against the two most establishment figures in Washington: President Obama and John Boehner. The populists won.
The Republican Party has been on this track for some time, fueled by the grass-roots fury of the Tea Party, contemptuous of Washington’s storied record of failure, and unafraid to revolt against party authority. Conservative congressmen simply didn’t trust President Obama and his staff to produce the best free-trade deal behind closed doors.
Democrats aren’t churning with anti-government sentiment like Republicans are, but their vote against TAA shows that the Obama magic has finally been extinguished. Even a last-minute personal plea by the president wasn’t enough to save the trade deal. One congressman later expressed frustration that Democrats weren’t allowed to ask Obama questions. The days of liberals following their Lightgiver into the promised land are over.
All this is indicative of a greater trend that, as with everything interesting, originated outside Washington. Alec MacGillis writes:
To try to block fast track and the TPP, liberal groups and labor unions are not organizing only among their own but are also reaching across the spectrum to conservatives skeptical of fast track and TPP. This left-right alliance has been duly noted in recent months. What has gone underappreciated, though, is just how much the opponents of the trade deals on the left are appealing to the right very much on the right’s own terms. After years of ridiculing the Tea Party movement’s talk of Obama as an autocrat on issues such as immigration and health care, the left is now pushing those very buttons on trade, noting that fast track would give Obama vast powers and that the TPP would create a new international arbitration panel where corporations could challenge local, state, and national laws.
This isn’t the first time liberals and conservatives teamed up to fight the establishment. The Tea Party Patriots and the ACLU ganged up on the Patriot Act. Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney and Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen knocked an appropriations bill off-kilter with a rogue anti-spending amendment. An education bill was yanked from the House floor back in February after conservatives and liberal mutinied.
In Washington, where interest groups congeal and consensus is exalted, this new left-right populist alliance is refreshing. But it’s also just that: populist, not libertarian or free-market. In the modern era of big government and crony capitalism, that’s often a distinction without a difference, but plenty of small-government types are peeved today because a traditionally libertarian cause, free trade, was rejected by Republicans.
Is a 12-nation deal that would link 40 percent of the world’s economy, open up nations like Japan, and sideline authoritarian China really such a bad idea? Is giving President Obama unilateral authority to negotiate such an agreement, and define lasting labor and environmental standards, really such a good idea? For libertarians and conservatives, these aren’t easy questions.