Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Test for House Democrats

Let's put aside the policy debate about the vote in the House yesterday on Trade Promotion Authority and see what we can learn from all the heat that's being generated about it. For example, today most headlines sound something like this:

Of course, that's pretty typical. Our politics is too often cast as a power game between individuals and/or groups rather than as a difference over policies. The media lens is most often on the horse race of which politicians won/lost rather than on how these votes will actually affect the American people. Is it any wonder why people tune out and get cynical about the process?

And then, of course, there are a lot of headlines like this:

Pelosi Defies Obama on Trade

It's true that Pelosi voted "no" on both Trade Adjustment Assistance and Trade Promotion Authority yesterday. As a result, Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO who has been lobbying hard against TPA, took a victory lap.
"Nancy Pelosi has always fought for working families and today her leadership on the trade package vote was instrumental in the House voting against another bad trade deal," he said.
But Nancy Pelosi didn't vote "against another bad trade deal." She voted against Trade Promotion Authority. It's important to note that Trumka is on record that he would never, under any circumstances, support Trade Promotion Authority (or so-called "fast track").
In fact, Trumka says the AFL-CIO wouldn't accept fast-track under any circumstances.

When I asked him if his organization would approve of TPA if the pact contained everything that unions wanted, he gave an emphatic no:

"...We think that’s the most undemocratic thing you can do. We think that’s dangerous."
Both Trumka and the headline-writer above should note what Rep. Pelosi said about her votes yesterday.
"The overwhelming vote today is a clear indication that it’s time for Republicans to sit down with Democrats to negotiate a trade promotion authority bill that is a better deal for the American people," Pelosi wrote to Democrats after the vote.
President Obama wants Trade Promotion Authority to pass. If Rep. Pelosi can get him a better deal on that from Republicans than the one that was voted on yesterday, I'm sure he'd be in favor of that. Richard Trumka...not so much.

Finally, there is the whole issue of Democrats voting against a program they have always supported: Trade Adjustment Assistance - which provide financial support and training to workers who have been affected by foreign trade.

What has happened historically is that when presidents of either party wanted TPA in order to negotiate trade agreements, Democrats have insisted on TAA as a way to mitigate the damages to those who are displaced by such deals. In other words, they have used the desire of presidents and Republicans to get TPA to leverage support for American workers. The truly historical thing that happened yesterday is that House Democrats may have given up that leverage. Folks like David Dayen think that's a good thing.
What Obama was proposing was a trick, one used repeatedly to advance distasteful policies, by getting each side to vote only on the parts they like. And House progressives responded by saying they wouldn’t play that game anymore. If they can withstand the pressure, not only will trade be derailed, but the era of the split-vote gambit, where opponents help the victors, will be over.
That "trick" he talks about is the same one that Democrats have typically used to do things like get food stamps for poor people by including them in the Farm Bill. Like it or not, its how Washington works because governing requires compromise.

What a lot of people missed is that it was this move by Democrats in the House that seems to have been the focus of President Obama's message to them yesterday.
He specifically asked them not to play games with trade authority by sinking the related Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, which Democrats typically support as a salve for workers in the wake of trade deals, according to several sources in the room. Unions and some liberal Democrats have targeted that bill for defeat because a loss would kill the fast-track bill. And Obama gave the argument a partisan edge.

"I didn't expect people to vote for it," the president said of the trade power, according to one of the sources in the room. "I did expect we would play it straight. ... What I don't want us to do is to start becoming like the other party."
In other words, the message that apparently insulted Rep. DeFazio was that Democrats shouldn't mirror the lunatic Republican caucus in the House by giving up their leverage and abandoning the possibility of compromise.

It's clear that Minority Leader Pelosi plans to use that leverage to try to get a better deal from Republicans. What remains to be seen is whether enough House Democrats will be persuaded to actually govern.


  1. That's one of my biggest fears is that some House Democrats think it is a good idea to mimic the Republican Party. To use thuggery tactics to get what they want. If they were smart they would realize this. But the typical back-benchers will do everything in their power to sink this legislation to prove a point that they are always right and then jump for joy afterwards like a bunch of school children. This Is why we can't have nice things, Heck they almost sunk the ACA all because they didn't get their Public Option Pony. And then when they didn't get their way them and many so called progressives such as Jane Hamsher, Cenk Uyuger,Arianna Huffington told millions of Democratic Voters to stay home Obama sold them out, Leading to one the biggest mid-term losses in decades giving the Republicans majorities from The National Level on down to dog catcher. It just boggs the mind that these people think they're smarter than they really are.

    1. That's not what happened with the PPACA. You can check the roll call, all the D defections were from southern Blue Dogs or mid-Atlantic rurals. A better example would be Dodd-Frank, where there was actual D self-sabotage "from the left."

      Russ Feingold famously refused to provide cloture in the senate, necessitating Scott Brown's 60th vote. A vote which came with a $17B price tag in tax giveaways to the banking industry. And guess what happened to Russ Feingold?

    2. Odie, exactly! As far I'm concerned, Dems sealed their fate next year by playing these BS games. The media can make this all about Obama all they want but it doesn't change reality; President Obama is still the only adult left in the room. Period.

      Pelosi stabbed PBO in back by doing this. No other way to spin this.

    3. Anyone who thinks Pelosi stabbed PBO in the back didn't listen to her speech or read her written response. Trumpka et al have a rude awakening coming!