Congressman David Price got it half-right, I guess. In the dramatic showdown over trade deals in the House of Representatives Friday, the Chapel Hill Democrat was a "no" vote on giving the White House fast-track negotiating authority, a commendable position even if the measure passed anyway.
But on the prior, critical vote that served to derail fast-track despite its passage—the vote that mattered—Price's "yes" got it wrong.
Worse, Price issued a statement scolding his fellow Democrats for using an "irresponsible and reckless ... political tactic" in order to succeed.
I'm shaking my head.
Consider, if you will, what's happened to U.S. trade in the era of globalization. As recently as 1975, the United States enjoyed a balance-of-payments surplus—that is, we exported more goods and services than we imported. The bottom fell out after President Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993.
Now in theory, free trade should benefit both trading countries equally—otherwise, why make the deal? But U.S. agreements seem designed to benefit corporations and their global investors, not the American public and certainly not American labor, which has seen jobs sent abroad while wages stagnate.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the deals, foreign governments, too, allow corporations to exploit low-wage workers while subjecting them to unsafe and environmentally hazardous working conditions.
Thus, when President Obama sought fast-track authority to negotiate a mega-deal, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim nations, organized labor and environmental groups fought back, helped by progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat.
"I don't doubt President Obama's sincerity when he claims that this [TPP] deal is going to be tough, that it's going to have unprecedented protections for workers, or for the environment," Warren told the Huffington Post. "The problem is that we've heard nearly identical promises about trade agreements for more than 20 years now ... those trade agreements have failed."
Or listen to ex-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, part of the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party. In the Washington Post, Summers sang the praises of free trade, which "is working spectacularly well for capital and a cosmopolitan elite that moves easily around the world."
It sure is.
This was the backdrop as the fast-track bill, called TPA—for Trade Promotion Authority—came to the House floor.
Remember, this was not the TPP itself; the TPP has yet to be finalized, and the secrecy surrounding the negotiations is a whole different disgrace. Suffice it to say here that enough has leaked (thanks, Wikileaks!) for progressive analysts like economist Bob Kuttner to describe the forthcoming deal as "special interest legislation for elites," with a series of sub-deals allowing corporations "to do end runs around national regulation."
TPA would let Obama—or his successor—wrap up the TPP and bring it to Congress for an up-or-down vote, no amendments (or Senate filibusters) allowed. That's what fast-track means.
And with the Republican majorities in Congress all for free trade—they're all for corporations, that is—and unconcerned about labor, a fast-track TPP would be a slam-dunk.
But since this is Congress, there was also a TAA—short for Trade Adjustment Assistance. This is money to retrain workers who lose their jobs because of trade deals. Ever since NAFTA, Democrats have insisted that trade deals come with TAA. Republicans don't care for it, but whatever.
In the Senate, the Democrats once again managed to hook the TPA and TAA together before passing them. Can't have one without the other.
Most Republicans, as usual, voted against TAA, but there were enough in favor that with the customary Democratic support, TAA should've passed. Except that 144 of the 184 Democrats, seeing this as their only chance to stop fast-track and at least slow down the TPP, voted against worker-retraining money, blocking the TAA and thus the whole package.
It was this "tactic" that Price denounced as reckless. He did so after sitting on the fence on the fast-track issue right up to the morning of the vote. Not exactly a profile in leadership.
The Republicans may bring the TAA up for another vote, with more of their members willing, this time, to hold their noses and vote for workers to advance the trade bill. If they need Price's support the second time around, please tell me he won't be so reckless as to stand on principle and vote "yes" again—and help fast-track race on through.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Free trade isn't free.".