Trade Promotion Theater

TPA was DOA until some last-minute political performances pushed it through.

Washington performance art reached heights it hasn't seen in a long time this week as the political class played out its first no-holds-barred conflict in months. The subject: Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), not necessarily an issue to keep an audience on the edge of its seats. Even so, it's been a very long-running show.

From 1974 until 1994, the executive branch had the power to negotiate international trade deals and submit them to Congress for an up or down vote, no amendments allowed. Since the White House lost that power, free traders have tried and failed to reinstate TPA. That struggle came to its climax this week, and the result was pretty diverting by recent Washington standards. In the end, Republicans mustered just enough pageantry, passion, and farm implements to push TPA through by a single vote. What that will cost them--and the rest of us--in coming months is still unclear.

The most impressive act, at least in terms of stage dressing, came Tuesday afternoon. Pro-TPA forces transformed a patch of grass at the Capitol into something resembling a barnyard. Congressional staffers fashioned bales o' hay, sacks of horse feed, and rustic-looking barrels of wholesome produce into a makeshift podium. If someone had managed to track down Uncle Jesse and the Duke boys, it could have been a real hoedown. Instead, it was a coalition of TPA supporters pointing out that freer trade would be good for American farmers. Such high-profile faces as Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) Rep. David Drier (R-Calif.), and Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) had featured roles. The American Farm Bureau Federation and a powerhouse coalition of other agricultural interests were on hand, as were other groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA).

This is the same coalition that has supported TPA for years, of course. This year, some of its members tried to cast terrorism as a walk-on. EIA President Eric McCurdy, for example, touched on the role of using trade to fight terrorism in his remarks, but others wisely avoided making the connection too vigorously. (Zoellick has taken a bit of a thumping for "using" the attacks to further TPA. He published an op-ed in the September 20 edition of The Washington Post titled "Countering Terror with Trade.") Instead, they relied on the same sort of data they've used to push the measure since 1994.

Not surprisingly, other people have data of their own--the AFL-CIO has been predictably ornery. Unsatisfied with old arguments, however, anti-TPA forces had a press conference on Monday to reveal a new reason to be against TPA. Led by Indiana Democrat Peter Visclosky (Vice-chairman of--surprise--the Congressional Steel Caucus), this coalition groaned about developments at the recent international trade talks in Doha, Qatar. There, Zoellick and friends agreed to put America's protectionist anti-dumping rules on the table in future trade rounds. The assembled TPA opponents argued that the move would inevitably push U.S. workers into economic despair. When I asked if any of the panelists supported TPA before Doha, however, there was an odd silence until Visclosky noted that everyone's opposition was, in fact, "a continuum." In other words, Doha had nothing to do with anything. More stage dressing.

It's not that there wasn't any movement on the TPA front before the Thursday vote. In fact, it was a political slobberknocker. The Post, hardly a friend of the GOP, issued a pair of broadsides blasting anti-TPA forces in recent weeks. A November 18 editorial bore the ferocious headline, "Democrats for Poverty." Another, issued December 5, gravely warned Democrats that the vote is "a test of their commitment to America's international leadership, and therefore of their right to claim the political center."

In the end, TPA had far more to do with political hardball than hard facts. Politicians who rely on steelworkers for votes were against it. Politicians whose constituents export tons of wheat were for it. The battle raged over the limited few who were free to go either way. To curry favor, Republicans budged early on labor and environmental concerns. In a last ditch effort this Wednesday, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) agreed that trade negotiators should insist that trading partners lower their tariffs before we change ours. He also agreed to support Democrat-backed increases in unemployment benefits as part of the looming economic stimulus package. Once the yeas and nays were tallied, these concessions were just enough: TPA passed 215 to 214, with 21 Democrats and 23 Republicans jumping ship. Two independents joined the nays.

It will take a while to find out just what sort of carrots Republicans dangled in order to get the votes. Thursday's Washington Post, for example, detailed the case of south Texas Democrat Solomon P. Ortiz, who said he might roll with TPA if GOP operatives would agree to support more transportation projects in his region: "If they say they can support that, then I might vote for it," he said. Check out the final roll call on the bill, and you'll see him firmly in the "aye" column. Did he get his projects? If so, Ortiz and many others like him will eventually come looking for payback. In Washington's dramas, that's what the last acts are always about.

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