By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen.
I don’t know what’s occurring more rapidly, Congressional votes on Trade Promotion Authority (aka fast track) or the parade of half-truths and outright falsehoods being promoted to sell it. Committees in the House and Senate held meetings Wednesday on the bill. The Senate Finance Committee markup got off to a slow start when Bernie Sanders used an obscure Senate maneuver to delay the markup:
Early Wednesday, Sanders forced the Senate Finance Committee to abandon a legislative hearing on a bill that would grant Obama so-called fast-track authority on trade agreements. Sanders invoked an arcane procedural maneuver, objecting to a rule that allows committees to meet during legislative sessions. By doing so, Sanders has prevented the Finance Committee from dealing with the trade bill until at least 4:00 p.m.
That’s significant because Senate Democrats, including Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), have prepared dozens of amendments to the fast-track bill, which will take several hours to address in committee. If the panel can’t finish its work Wednesday, or just decides to call it a day early and resume its business tomorrow, Sanders can raise the same objection again, potentially delaying the process for several days.
It turned out to be more symbolic than significant. Chairman Orrin Hatch vowed the committee would work deep into the night to get to a final vote, and they eventually came away advancing it by 20-6. Only Richard Burr voted no among the Republicans, while Democrats split: 7 yes (Wyden, Cantwell, Nelson, Carper, Cardin, Bennet, Warner), five no (Schumer, Stabenow, Menendez, Brown, Casey). Sherrod Brown had introduced 88 amendments, but most of them never got a vote.
Ron Wyden, the Administration’s stalking horse on the bill, was the only Democrat to vote with all Republicans to cut Trade Adjustment Assistance, basically a cash payoff for workers affected by trade bills. Wyden said specifically that he was acting with the support of the Administration on that.
Elsewhere, you’re starting to see how Senate Democrats will engage in opposition theater rather than obstructionism. Chuck Schumer, the next Democratic leader, passed a bipartisan amendment in the Finance Committee on currency manipulation, but only on a separate customs/trade enforcement bill, NOT trade promotion authority. “Schumer’s staff said he would not try to add it to the fast-track bill, which would be more problematic for Obama,” according to the AP. The customs/trade enforcement bill and fast track are designed to move together, says Scott Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, and he calls the vote a “huge win.” But a separate currency amendment in fast track, where I would argue it matters more because of negotiating leverage, failed. Schumer did vote against the bill, but he didn’t take the step that would have made the biggest difference.
Similarly, Harry Reid pronounced that he was a “hell no” on fast track, but also that he wouldn’t filibuster it. It only takes one for a filibuster, so Sanders could do it, but it doesn’t appear that the votes are there; just the Finance Committee Democrats plus all Republicans gets you to 60.
As for the House, where the outcome is more of a live ball, the Ways and Means Committee held a hearing Wednesday, with a markup scheduled today. The hearing had Jack Lew, Penny Pritzker and Tom Vilsack testifying. And with one notable exception – Ron Wyden’s Oregon colleague Earl Blumenauer, who said “I am comfortable with the overall outline, and knowing what I know will probably vote for it” – every Democrat I saw when I was watching was opposed, with every Republican in favor. That’s the committee, of course; these are the most bought-in (or perhaps just bought) Republicans on trade. It’s not necessarily indicative of how many Democrats might be needed to get the thing passed. Republican Tom Cole claimed 180-200 Republicans would vote for fast track, making Democrats the margin of victory.
Democrat Mike Thompson, who’s officially undecided, sure sounded like a no, asking Pritzker, “If this is supposed to be a win for American workers, is it coincidental that every American worker who has talked to me about this is solidly against it?” Joe Crowley, Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, who was about to get a rally at his district office from environmental groups, announced he was opposed. So did Xavier Becerra, chair of the caucus, who might have been U.S. Trade Representative in the negotiations if he accepted the Administration’s offer in 2012.
In the hearing, Becerra highlighted one of the more ridiculous justifications from the Administration. TPA has “negotiating objectives” on a number of topics, including currency manipulation. The currency objective has been touted by supporters as a historic precedent for curbing devaluation. However, Jack Lew sent a letter to Congress yesterday simultaneously citing the importance of the currency objective while saying it’s meaningless and must stay that way:
Many Members of Congress and various stakeholders have made a strong case in favor of addressing currency in the context of trade agreements such as the TPP, and we support the current draft of the TPA that includes a strong currency negotiating objective […]
In light of the currency objective that is included in the current TPA legislation, we began formal consultation with our TPP partners and had a number of these conversations last week during the Spring Meetings of the IMF and World Bank. Our partners indicated a willingness to constructively discuss our concerns about inappropriate currency policies, providing an opportunity to work with them to develop an historic new approach to promote greater accountability. Nonetheless, all of the partners consulted have made clear that they will not support the introduction of enforceable currency provisions in the context of trade agreements, and specifically, the TPP. Our partners fear that a trade agreement with an enforceable currency discipline could constrain the ability of their monetary authorities to conduct appropriate macroeconomic policies, and that is a risk they are unwilling to take.
We have a serious concern that in any trade negotiation other countries would insist that an enforceable currency provision be designed so it could be used to challenge legitimate U.S. monetary policy, an outcome we would find unacceptable. Seeking enforceable currency provisions would likely derail the conclusion of the TPP given the deep reservations held by our trading partners. As such, any amendment to TPA legislation requiring that the Administration only seek enforceable currency provisions as a principal negotiating objective would undermine our ability to successfully conclude a TPP negotiation.
In other words, we’re willing to include an objective, but you know, we asked our partners and they don’t want to do anything about it, so whaddya gonna do?
This shows the total bankruptcy of passing Congressional negotiating “objectives” when the object of the negotiation has been under discussion for 5 years and is pretty much done. So Becerra asked Lew about it (rough paraphrase):
Becerra: Tell me how are you going to get these partners who want TPP to sit down at a different point in time?
Lew: They sat down in the G-20.
Becerra: Where are the teeth?
Lew: We’ve made progress and we plan to make more. But you can’t put something into the trade bill.
Becerra: I don’t disagree that we’ll keep trying to make progress. But this is the best time when you can make a deal because they want something, access to our markets.
Lew: In fairness, our markets are very open, we want access to markets that aren’t open.
So much to pick over. First, the admission at the end that we’ve sold out American workers through trade policy for the last several decades, and now we have no leverage to make it any better. Second, the idea that nothing in the negotiating objectives can be enforceable and tie the hands of the Administration, even as they swear up and down that these objectives will be adhered to. Lew made a point several times of saying Congress eventually has to approve TPP, and that “I don’t believe we can pass an agreement if we ignore the objectives,” when he knows full well that passing fast track will prevent filibusters or amendments on any trade deal, making it a “take it or leave it” scenario and much easier to pass than a regular bill.
My other favorite whopper was when Indiana Republican Todd Young questioned Pritzker, and she started going on about how these agreements will “protect our businesses,” in the context of intellectual property, particularly for biologic drugs. That was a bit of a giveaway that the deal isn’t as much about free trade as it is about locking in profits for large pharmaceutical concerns.
Ways and Means has a markup scheduled for today. Sander Levin is going to offer a substitute amendment that includes negotiating instructions rather than objectives, a separate certification process from a bipartisan panel that the instructions were followed on each trade agreement, and an enforceable mechanism to remove the expedited pathway for deals. It includes an enforceable currency piece, among other things. A summary is here. Nancy Pelosi supports the amendment, but her press statement is the linguistic equivalent of rice cakes: there’s nothing to it.
Ultimately the Levin amendment reflects an attempt to “get to yes” on the bill, and I’m not so keen on the “enforceable” standards placed on foreign countries without much history of compliance in the areas at issue, a point I plan to take up in a subsequent post. In political terms, the real question is how much support there is in the rank and file of the GOP, and whether there are enough Democrats to make up the difference. It’s a good time to keep the calls to the House flowing.