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.
“Times have changed dramatically since then,” the Kentucky Republican said. “I think it’s globalization and the loss of jobs overseas and declining exports and a huge increase in imports.”
Rep. Jack Kingston, who voted against NAFTA, said his views evolved as the global economy changed.
“I think at the time, there was a lot of concern that I don’t think was unfounded about American jobs and competing because of lower labor standards, lower salaries for foreign workers. That is still a concern, but you just look at what has happened between now and then and it has been a real change,” said the Georgia Republican, who voted for all three agreements Wednesday. “You look at cars: In my political lifetime, you would never drive anything other than what was made in Detroit. Now it doesn’t matter. BMW sells more cars in America than they sell in Germany.”
“Germany buys parts from Malaysia, who buys parts from Israel. And if we don’t want to be a part of that, we’re going to fall behind,” he continued.
Other countries’ striking bilateral and multilateral deals have spurred the party to change, said House Rules Chairman David Dreier, a longtime proponent of trade who voted for NAFTA.
“In the last five years, we’ve seen Canada, the European Union and other countries engage in bilateral agreements with these partners with whom we have negotiated,” the California Republican said.
Some holdouts remain. Six voted against every deal: LaTourette and Smith joined Reps. Rob Bishop (Utah), Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.) and David McKinley (W.Va.) as the only GOP votes against the Panama deal. Those Republicans and three more voted against the Colombia deal.
“There’s some exporting going on, and those people are doing OK,” LaTourette said, explaining his votes. “But most of the people pushing the trade deals are the multinationals, and the multinationals have not really been that great for the workforce in Ohio.”
The South Korea deal faced the most Republican opposition, showing that some regional interests still hold; all but one GOP House Member from the Carolinas voted against the deal because they fear transshipments from China could threaten the states’ textiles industry.
“When I was first elected, my bread-and-butter issues were tobacco, furniture and textiles. Well, all three are beleaguered now,” Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) said, though he voted for NAFTA. “I had to vote ‘no’ because my textile folks were opposed to it. My mama was a textile worker. So when I talk about textile legislation, I’m thinking about my mama. And the textile people have been mighty good to me.”
Even in the Carolinas, though, things are changing, McCarthy said.
“You go to South Carolina, look at Boeing building its planes,” he said. “Where’s Boeing sending its planes? Here, but mainly around the world.”
That argument may have persuaded Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.) to buck his delegation as the only Carolina Republican to vote for the South Korea agreement.
“Folks that were involved in the process really gave me great comfort and confidence that we will be able to protect our textiles,” the freshman member of leadership said.
McKinley was the only freshman to vote against every trade deal, which may portend what the future looks like for trade votes. That is a reality LaTourette reluctantly conceded.
“Any trade deal that comes forward, unless it’s really vile, this is probably the same vote it will get,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.