It happened almost without notice, but Wednesday’s trade votes might have sounded the death knell of the conservative protectionist.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a significant bloc of House Republicans voted against nearly every trade deal, worrying about the shipping of jobs overseas.
Burgeoning worldwide markets and a struggling national economy, however, have all but “evaporated” such Republican opposition, said Rep. Steven LaTourette, one of a small band to vote against every trade deal on Wednesday.
“There are, like, nine of us. So yeah, I would say there is an evaporation going on,” the Ohio Republican said.
The agreements received little Senate opposition, and in fact, the votes on agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama were the first ones since 1985 that could have passed the House just with Republican votes.
Eager to highlight party unity after last month’s failed vote on a continuing resolution, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy attributed the votes to an aggressive three-month whipping effort.
“My internal goal was always that Republicans could carry this on their own if they had to, and we’ve never been able to do that,” the California Republican said. “Doing it with all three made us strong in the process.”
The last trade deal to pass Congress before last week was Peru in 2007, a vote that drew 16 House Republican opponents, when the GOP was in the minority. The lines have shifted, though, for the young GOP Conference. More than half of its 242 Members have never voted on a trade deal, McCarthy said.
“Because trade has grown so much, you don’t have it as regional anymore. In areas that were a problem, you now have factories there that are seeing the value of trade,” McCarthy said.
Sen. Roy Blunt, the House Republican Whip during the Peru vote, said a larger Conference makes it simpler to get more “yes” votes, but he argued the dynamic has also changed.
“There is a focus on jobs, an economy that wants to grow but isn’t growing on its own and, on the Republican side, a sense that tariffs are job-killing taxes. That didn’t use to be the sense,” the Missourian said.
At the height of Republican isolationism, 47 House Members, just less than a quarter of the conference, voted against 1993’s North American Free Trade Agreement. Of those, nine are still in the House, and just one, Rep. Chris Smith (N.J.), voted against all three deals Wednesday.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers voted against NAFTA but for all three deals Wednesday.