Anti-trade congressmen in a trade-hungry state

It’s not news that Democrats have been going wobbly for years on American-led free trade, a system the Democratic Party originally pioneered. The stunner is that two lawmakers from our neighborhood, U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Denny Heck, have joined the party’s protectionists in attempting to cripple the president’s ability to negotiate trade treaties.

Key votes on trade are now happening in the House of Representatives. The biggest – expected on Friday – will determine whether President Obama will be given “trade promotion authority,” a prerogative his predecessors enjoyed while bargaining with other nations.

Also called fast track, the TPA bill would commit Congress to either accept or reject a proposed trade treaty in its entirety, as opposed to festooning it with amendments sought by any number of special interests. Without this congressional pledge, the president can’t bargain with any certainty. Trade rivals, not knowing what the United States will really wind up offering, will hold back their best terms. Result: failure.

If you favor open borders and low tariffs on American exports, you give TPA to the president. If you fear trade and want to perpetuate protective barriers against international commerce, you deny him that authority. It’s really that stark.

Announcing their opposition to fast track this week, Smith and Heck joined Seattle’s Jim McDermott, who has fallen in with the anti-trade left. The state’s other Democratic House members – Derek Kilmer, Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen – were willing to buck organized labor and other protectionists. The state’s four Republican representatives, including Dave Reichert, bucked pressure from the hard right, which includes people who despise Barack Obama so much they will sabotage the country’s economic interests to spite him.

The immediate purpose of TPA is to promise a clean, up-or-down vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty that would lower trade barriers among 12 Pacific Rim nations.

By all accounts, its advantages would tilt heavily toward the United States. It would lower Asian tariffs against U.S. goods and protect American innovators and artists against the piracy of intellectual property.

This trade-dependent state’s fortunes are tied directly to the partnership. Washington farmers and manufacturers – and the jobs they sustain – need more access to those Asian markets.

The treaty’s Democratic enemies claim it would threaten the environment and hurt labor – despite Obama’s assurances that he has demanded unprecedented protections for both. The arguments against it sometimes verge on hysterical.

A charitable reading of the position Heck and Smith have adopted is that they know better but have calculated that TPA can pass without them taking a politically hard vote. The possibility that they really don’t understand that bill’s importance to this state is too discouraging to contemplate.