Tea party Republicans insist they’re in favor of free trade. They just don’t want to place a key trade negotiating power in President Barack Obama’s hands.
The deep suspicion of giving the president authority to fast-track trade pacts through Congress without amendments — which Republicans have traditionally supported — is just the latest rift between the Big Business-aligned mainstream GOP and the party’s more populist tea party wing, which dislikes the legislative mechanisms that make trade deals work and is loath to hand Obama another victory.
They’re as incoherent as ever, but so what? As with some of the other items in the “bipartisan” big business goodie bag, they’re too dumb and obstinate to know they’re actually getting what they want. But that’s a good thing.
GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Walter Jones of North Carolina released a letter signed by 22 House Republicans on Tuesday condemning fast-track authority as a measure that allows Obama to “unilaterally write legislation making the pacts’ terms U.S. federal law.” Rep. Darrell Issa of California, meanwhile, has complained about the Obama administration’s “secretive, closed-door negotiating process” on the deals that fast-track authority would prevent Congress from amending.
Outside Congress, tea party movement leaders are delivering a similar message. Judson Phillips, the head of Tea Party Nation, has railed against Obama’s trade agenda. So have Bruce Fein, an adviser to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum.
If Obama has fast-track authority, “the House cedes to the president its constitutional power to write legislation that regulates commerce with foreign nations,” Schlafly said in a recent email to supporters. “We’ve never had a president who so arrogantly grabs and uses such unlawful power.”
They have had no such problems when the president was a Republican of course. But no matter. These trade deals are a bipartisan problem and it takes bipartisan obstruction to stop them:
The push to have Congress renew fast-track authority is always tricky. Liberal Democrats — the allies of labor unions — reliably oppose free-trade proposals. So does the isolationist wing of the Republican Party. That leaves moderate Democrats to band with more mainstream Republicans to move trade bills.
It’s an alliance that in the past has been just strong enough to squeak by. When fast-track trade authority was last approved, the House vote was 215-212. That was 2002 — long before the tea party’s rise. It would take less than a majority of House Republicans to gum up the process now. If just some Republicans link arms with liberal, pro-labor Democrats in opposition, that bloc of free-trade supporters could be shattered and fast-track authority doomed.
Considering the recent performance of the US economy and the ongoing, relentless pursuit of austerity it’s an especially bad time to be making any “trade deals.” God only knows what they’ll come up with. So let’s just table that little project for the time being, shall we? The Tea Party may be opposing it out of the most shallow, stupid reasons imaginable but if they want to be useful idiots for a good cause, that’s just fine.
Update: This excellent piece by Rick Perlstein on the premature exultation among liberals about the seemingly always imminent GOP crack-up, shows that whatever happens here is not the result of a schism between the economic “populist” right wing and the “Business” right wing. They are the same thing and always will be. Their reasons for opposing trade deals have little to do with the underlying policy and everything to do with their simple-minded hatred for Barack Obama. Like I said, useful idiots.