There is a very short list of topics on which the Democratic president and the Republican Congress might actually cooperate. In fact, the list might contain only one item.
The United States is the world’s second leading exporter, after China. Foreign markets already support 1 out of every 5 American jobs. And as President Obama noted in his radio address last weekend, increasing trade is clearly in the national interest since “95 percent of the world’s potential customers live outside our borders.”
The president’s pro-trade arguments have been echoed by Rep. Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2012.
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“Trade is good for America,” he said in a recent speech to the Washington International Trade Association. “More trade means more people – from every country – buying, selling, investing, creating: all working together to build a better world.”
You would think that an issue so obviously beneficial to the American economy would command wide bipartisan support. But you would be wrong.
It’s always easier to stop something than pass something in Washington, and that axiom is truer than ever in today’s capital. The center has hollowed out. Compromise is equated with betrayal. Hardliners on both sides refuse to acknowledge the economic facts that are smacking them in the face.
Massive trade deals are now being negotiated with both Asia and Europe, and getting them through Congress will require enormous acts of courage by leaders like Obama and Ryan, who are willing to stand up to these deluded but determined factions in their own parties.
The stakes are very high. If they fail, it’s hard to see how any other significant measures can command bipartisan backing over the next two years. And America’s reputation around the world would take a huge hit.
“It’s not just our economy that’s on the line. It’s our credibility,” says Ryan. “If we fail to complete these talks, more countries will doubt U.S. leadership.”
Even before the ongoing negotiations are concluded, the first order of business is to pass through Congress a measure called Trade Promotion Authority, or “fast track.” This legislation would set down congressional conditions for future agreements while guaranteeing that any pact would get an “up or down” vote on Capitol Hill, with no amendments allowed.
No trading partner would make concessions as part of a package deal, knowing that lawmakers could strip out any pieces of that package. Fast track makes such good sense that presidents enjoyed that authority for 33 years. But it lapsed in 2007 and hasn’t been renewed – one more victim of Washington’s poisonous paralysis.
Ryan said recently in Japan that “we anticipate passing this legislation this spring.” We hope he’s right, but it won’t be easy. Republican ranks, especially in the House, are laced with tea party types who deride big business almost as much as they despise the president. If the Chamber of Commerce is for fast track – and it is – then they’re against it.
Moreover, this faction harbors such a visceral hatred of Obama that it will oppose giving him enhanced powers of any kind – even if greater trade benefits their own districts.
“After President Obama’s power grabs over the past three or four years, people have come to the conclusion you should not be giving this president any additional authority,” Rick Manning of Americans for Limited Government, a tea party ally, told the New York Times.
The problems are even greater on the Democratic side. Liberal activists and labor chiefs sound just like the tea party in voicing anti-trade phobias that defy the undeniable benefits of greater international commerce.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, put it this way in the Times: “We have trusted and trusted for years and years, and it’s only been to the detriment of American workers. Members of Congress are fed up with this. The trust factor, whether it’s Barack Obama or anyone else, is not there any longer.”
Is greater trade a panacea for all that ails the American economy? No. Have some jobs been lost to foreign competition? Yes. Should workers and towns that suffer severely from that competition be compensated? Absolutely.
But globalization is indisputable and irreversible. It has to be embraced, not feared; encouraged, not rejected. That’s why Paul Ryan is right: “Trade is good for America.”
Can he and the president convince enough lawmakers to recognize that reality? If not, ignorance and ideology will win. And the national interest will lose.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.