The Senate trade promotion bill became a self-fulfilling prophecy in ways its sponsors probably didn’t anticipate — all before it could even pass the Senate. The trades made were legislative favors swapped on the floor for the support of senators otherwise threatening to bring the bill down. Step by step these legislative side payments accrued sufficient interest to move the bill forward and ultimately past the last 60-vote cloture threshold to final passage.
In Congress, politics is the art of the passable, and bargaining has always been a part of that process. For the trade bill that presented an especially tricky challenge since many of the favors sought would have invited a presidential veto if included as amendments to the bill. To overcome that obstacle the political odd couple of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and President Barack Obama combined forces to put the measure over the top through artful strategizing and persistent personal lobbying efforts, respectively.
It may be difficult to fathom why so much effort was necessary for what is essentially a process bill. The trade promotion bill is not a trade agreement with the Pacific-rim or the European Union currently negotiating with the U.S. Instead it is a framework for considering those agreements when they are formally presented to Congress. Trade promotion authority, or what was once called fast-track trade negotiating authority, puts consideration of subsequent agreements on a tight time-line for consideration in both houses of Congress — no amendments or filibusters allowed, and an up or down vote on final approval.
This is an instance, though, in which the process is critical to success. Without it, our trading partners would not have confidence in the president’s ability to prevent Congress from amending an agreement to pieces, upsetting carefully balanced interests that hold such compacts together.
The president can exercise unilateral negotiating authority on treaties, but Congress has the exclusive power under the Constitution “to regulate trade with foreign nations.” As former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick frequently reminded his audiences, “Authority over trade belongs with the Congress. We have to borrow that authority and we have to give it back now and then.” The fast-track trade negotiating authority loaned to the president by Congress dates back to the 1974 Trade Act, but has had two major lapses: 1994 to 2002, and 2007 to the present.
Democratic opposition in both chambers to renewing that authority is based on fears the trade agreements being negotiated will trigger substantial American job losses. A major lobbying campaign against the trade promotion bill was launched by the Democrats’ most active and powerful constituencies — organized labor and allied environmental and public interest groups.
To win over the dozen or more potential pro-trade Senate Democrats, and hold a few wavering Republicans, McConnell made the first trade up front by including in the bill’s substitute the renewal of trade adjustment assistance to help retrain workers who lose their jobs due to foreign competition.
But that was only the beginning. The majority leader wanted a relatively open amendment process. However, over 200 amendments were filed on the bill, many of which were poison pill amendments designed to elicit a presidential veto. Moreover, the majority leader wanted to finish the bill before the Memorial Day recess.
To finesse this dilemma, McConnell ended up agreeing to separate consideration of three additional bills: extending trade benefits to certain developing countries, countering currency manipulation by other nations, and extending the life of the Export-Import Bank that subsidizes the export of American-made goods. Passage of the first two bills enabled a cloture vote to initially bring up the trade bill. A pledge to hold a vote on the latter bill in June brought cloture on the bill itself and final passage after a currency manipulation amendment was neutered.
Earlier this year I predicted Obama would become more engaged with Congress as his term draws to a close and opportunities for unilateral accomplishments dry-up (“Obama Hints at New Approach to Congress,” Feb. 3). The trade bill may be an aberration, but it does present an excellent model for how the president can secure a larger legacy for himself, and credit to the Congress, on significant matters on which the two parties can find common ground. For now, though, the trade bill must pass the more problematic House.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.
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