Washington — When U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and the other members of the Congressional Black Caucus visited the White House last week, they talked with President Barack Obama about poverty rates and the criminal justice system.
They also heard a pitch from him about an issue that’s high on his agenda: foreign trade.
Obama and almost all the caucus members, including Richmond, are Democrats — but on trade policy, the partisan bond suffers serious strain. In fact, when Obama touted his trade proposals in his State of the Union address to Congress last month, it was the Republicans who rose to their feet to applaud, while most Democrats sat on their hands.
The overall pattern is reflected, with variations, within the congressional delegation from Louisiana, a state where trade plays a major role in the economy.
“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet,” Richmond said after the White House meeting.
What Obama wants Richmond and his fellow Democrats to do is give their support to two trade proposals the administration hopes to push through Congress this year.
The first one, which could be taken up within the next month, would renew the president’s lapsed trade promotion authority, or TPA — the power to fast-track trade deals by presenting them to Congress for a straight up or down vote, with no opportunity for amendments. The fast-track option has been provided to both Democratic and Republican presidents going back to 1974, but the latest extension of the authority expired in 2007.
Fast-track supporters argue that without it, trade agreements would be nearly impossible to negotiate, because other countries would worry that Congress would tear apart any deal and push for more concessions beyond those already in the package. Opponents say the authority strips Congress of its role in making policy.
The other Obama proposal, which relies on previous approval of fast-track authority and could come before Congress later this year, is a 12-country free-trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. It would lower tariffs and other barriers to trade among the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Mexico and Canada, some of which also participate in existing agreements.
TPP supporters say it will open foreign markets, boost U.S. exports and create high-paying American jobs in companies that trade with the affected countries. They also say the agreement will enhance the U.S. role in the region and counteract the growing influence of China.
Opponents say it’s American jobs that will be exported, to countries with lower wages, and that the pact will enlist the United States in a “race to the bottom” that will degrade food safety, environmental protection and other U.S. standards. They cite what they say were the effects of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, adopted under Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Richmond, the lone Democrat in the Louisiana delegation, represents a district that includes most of New Orleans and stretches along the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge, incorporating ports that rank with the busiest in the nation in foreign trade. He was thinking of NAFTA when he said, “There have been trade agreements in the past that have helped the district and hurt the country.”
Trade policy is the top priority in Congress for U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, and he’s an enthusiastic supporter of both Obama initiatives. On fast-track authority, he said, the government “can’t have the entire House of Representatives trying to serve as a negotiator.” And the way TPA is set up, he said, actually taps Congress for input to the deal-making process early on, so that potential objections from the House and Senate can be addressed beforehand.
“The last thing the administration wants to do is to bring a hard fought-agreement for an up or down vote and have it lose,” he said.
Boustany co-authored an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal promoting the TPP and other trade agreements. As for NAFTA, he points to a Mexican-owned company that operates a factory in his district.
“They buy American cotton and they manufacture yarn,” he said. “It’s supporting hundreds of jobs in Jefferson Davis Parish — and that’s because of NAFTA.”
Japan is a key participant in the TPP, and negotiators are reportedly nearing final agreement on such issues as sharply reducing Japanese tariffs on U.S. beef and pork and easing regulations for importing Japanese auto parts into the United States.
“We want a level playing field,” Boustany said. He’s taking a TPP trip to Japan, Malaysia and Singapore during the congressional recess this week with other House members, including five Republicans and a Democrat.
Opening Japan to agricultural imports would be a boon for his district in Northeast Louisiana, Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, said.
“It’s a market that I need, for the 5th District, that the nation needs,” Abraham said. “If it takes TPA, which it will, to get TPP, I’m all in. We’ve got to do this.”
Count U.S. Sen. David Vitter as another Louisiana Republican who is a fan of free trade.
“It’s good for the country and it’s certainly good for a port and maritime state like Louisiana,” he said. But that’s only part of the picture.
“As a country we’re pretty good at negotiating good trade deals,” Vitter said. “We’re god-awful, no matter who the president is, at enforcing the agreements we sign.”
Vitter said he’s particularly concerned about upholding regulations on the importation of shrimp to protect the Louisiana seafood industry from unfair competition.
“I’m certainly trying to get our government to be more aggressive regarding enforcement of trade laws and health and safety laws with regard to shrimp,” he said.
Just last week, Boustany joined in a news conference for the administration’s announcement that it will go before the World Trade Organization to challenge export subsidies for shrimp and other products from China, which is not part of the TPP.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, represents part of New Orleans and many of its suburbs, and he’s one of the Republicans who stood and applauded when Obama talked up his trade strategy in his speech last month.
“I think it going to be really good for the city of New Orleans, especially, for the state of Louisiana, to have good trade agreements in place that are fair, that help Louisiana export even more,” Scalise said. “Louisiana stands to get a lot from free trade, and I strongly support it.”
As whip, Scalise is responsible for lining up Republican votes for legislation endorsed by the party’s leadership, and he’s working for the trade proposals. One tough sell, though, is likely to be Rep. John Fleming, of Minden.
“Before Congress grants any president additional authority, Congress should see evidence that the president is willing to respect the existing boundaries of the Constitution and will use Trade Promotion Authority responsibly,” Fleming said in an email.
Like other Louisiana Republicans, Fleming considers Obama’s executive orders on immigration as unconstitutional, and he has pushed for Congress to block them.
“Thus far,” Fleming said in his email, “President Obama has trampled the rule of law and acted to sow distrust, not build trust.”
Fleming is a charter member of the newly formed Freedom Caucus of arch-conservative Republicans in the House, and its members could provide a core of Republican opposition to TPA — although the trade deals are supported by the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation, two bastions of right-wing influence, as well as by leading business associations.
Organized labor opposes Obama’s plan, and many Democrats are likely to buck the president. But supporters express confidence the trade package will pass Congress, though they say Obama may have to pitch in.
“He needs to make the case to Democrats why it’s important and use his political capital to get Democratic support, because we want bipartisan support as fully as possible,” Boustany said.
“These votes can be close, and they can be tough votes for some,” he said. But failure, Boustany said, “would, I think, be a tragedy for the United States, because TPA and moving forward with TPP is very important for American engagement around the world and American leadership around the world.”
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