Today brings a rarity on Capitol Hill: a genuinely unpredictable event. The House will take a series of votes that leaders hope will end with fast-track trade authority heading to the president for his signature, allowing him to complete the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and bring it back to Congress for a guaranteed up-or-down vote without amendment.
Before that gets done, however, the White House is contending with a progressive caucus that appears willing to mess with the primal forces of nature by refusing to go along with a Washington tradition: the paired vote.
Because voters get the barest of information through context-less campaign ads, Congress often sets up these paired votes to get support for a policy that has something both parties dislike. For example, the farm bill perennially includes a host of measures supporting corporate agribusiness, for Republicans, and food stamp funding, for Democrats. Sometimes they’ll separate the votes, so food stamp funding can pass with majority Democratic support, and the agribusiness bits with majority Republican support. As long as nobody blows the whistle on this game and denies support for what they like in order to stop what they don’t like, the bills can pass.
When it comes to trade, for over 40 years — ever since the origin of the fast-track process — that sweetener for Democrats has been trade adjustment assistance (TAA). This program provides federal funds for workers displaced by free trade agreements, from job training and placement services to relocation expenses to income support to help with health insurance premiums. Democrats have traditionally supported TAA, even though it serves a corporate trade agenda that has helped to hollow out the U.S. manufacturing base and limit regulatory authority. It’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the trade medicine go down, so Democrats can go back to their districts and say that at least they got aid for outsourced workers.
The problem is there’s substantial disagreement on whether TAA even helps workers get new jobs. The far better alternative is to prevent policies that displace workers in the first place; TAA is like throwing a quarter in the tip jar for somebody that just lost their house. But because of the Washington dance, Democrats effectively bless deals that sell out American workers by voting for TAA, mainly because it sounds good — even though the benefits are quite uncertain.
Related: How TPA Could Make Trade Deals More Transparent
The situation in the House now is this: The Democratic caucus is mostly opposed to fast track, and enough Republicans don’t want to give President Obama any more authority that around 20 to 25 Democratic votes are required. More Democrats have come out against fast track in recent days, making the whip count very tight. TAA is so critical to securing Democratic support for trade that Republicans scheduled a vote on it today, before the vote on fast track. Without TAA’s passage, the GOP leadership has said they would not move forward, but they’ve only promised 50 to 100 votes for it. So Democrats hold the key to TAA — and with it, the entire fast track bill, which has been weighed down by conservative riders in recent days.
But the games that Republicans have played with TAA, and the inattention to those games from the White House, have shown liberal Democrats what a farce the whole trade-off is. House bill-writers initially paid for part of TAA with $700 million in Medicare cuts, a small amount but symbolic for using Medicare as a cookie jar to fund anything Congress wants. It’s amazing the White House didn’t see the firestorm this would create. After the Senate passed TAA with the Medicare pay-for, House liberals predictably revolted.
Republicans agreed to change the pay-for to increased penalties for non-compliance with taxes. And they passed an African trade bill that included that pay-for, changing the TAA bill before it even passes. The Senate has promised to quickly pass that. But House Democrats would still have to vote for a TAA bill that cuts Medicare, inviting negative ad campaigns highlighting their “support” for Medicare trims, despite the fact that they’ve already been reversed.
There are additional concerns with TAA. The coverage has thinned to a skinny $450 million a year, pocket change relative to the rest of the budget. The House bill holds public employees exempt from its benefits, a particular problem considering that additional trade deals (like the Trade in Services Agreement) could privatize public services and displace public workers.
More than that, however, labor unions and liberal representatives finally realized that the paired vote scam doesn’t work anymore, and if you have leverage to stop a bill you find abhorrent, you should probably just use it. “The two are linked, so if TAA doesn’t pass, it puts a hold on both,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), the ranking Democratic member on the Ways & Means Committee and a key voice on trade, yesterday.
Levin is a no on TAA, along with a surprising number of the Democratic caucus — at least 77 members, by one count. The AFL-CIO, perhaps TAA’s biggest booster over the years, sent a message to members of Congress urging a “no” vote. The Obama administration professed feigned shock to The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent: “It’s scary that they’d be willing to take TAA down — potentially for good — just to kill (fast-track),” said an administration official.
But liberals, if they go through with it, would simply be ending the charade that surrounds congressional procedure. A vote for TAA is simply a vote for more corporate-written trade deals, and by voting “no,” liberals can show their unwillingness to play the game anymore. Because TAA doesn’t actually work for workers, the emotional blackmail being attempted by trade supporters has less resonance.
Nancy Pelosi, who has been the White House’s ally in deal-making to get fast track passed, was blindsided by the TAA issue. Liberals are supposed to be good soldiers and hold up their part of the bargain, in her view. And they may yet buckle under Pelosi’s pressure. But they would be as responsible for passing fast track as anyone who votes “yes.”
The paired vote is a convenient fiction, designed for congressional scorecards and dumbed-down campaign ads. It would be a great victory for small-d democratic accountability to see it go. If members oppose a policy, they shouldn’t agree to pass one piece of it they appreciate to help the policy move forward. In TAA’s case, they would only help Republicans scurry away from voting for something they consider welfare so they can get their preferred policy of corporate hegemony.
The trade debate has mostly shown the ugly side of congressional sausage-making. But if it leads to stopping one of the most cynical parts of the legislative process, where Democrats and Republicans join together to pass priorities most Democrats don’t actually want, it will have delivered a great service.
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