So we once again have a functioning senate, no longer a prisoner of Harry Reid’s theory of government – if you do not like a bit of legislation, you can keep it – keep it from the floor, keep it from debate, keep it from a vote. That proved to be a ticket to the minority, as disgusted voters decided in favor of a change they can believe in.
Mitch McConnell, leader of the new majority, has restored traditional procedure. Bills are debated, amendments offered and voted on, and if already approved by the House of Representatives, the bill lands on the President’s desk. That was the fate of the bill giving Obama and any president for the next six years “fast-track authority.” That means Obama can complete five years of negotiations of his 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in the next few weeks, setting rules for a claimed 40% of world trade. Sometime this autumn the pact goes to congress for an up-or-down vote, no picking the deal apart to appease special constituencies.
And his successor can complete negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Partnership, and also seek an up or down vote from congress. The good news is that although policy differences remain, Obama and Republicans worked together, and automatic gridlock is no more. Any bad news will come when we find out what is in the TPP, until now a secret Obama has been unwilling to share with potential critics. Which number among them Democrats fearful of reductions in financial support from trade unions that see freer trade producing fleeing jobs, environmentalists worrying that the deal will dilute regulatory protections, and consumer representatives who see higher drug prices in their constituents’ futures if the pact passes congressional scrutiny.
In effect, the coming battle over TPP is a subset of the battle over the reasonableness of this country’s income distribution system. Conservatives and liberals battling over trade issues are passing like ships in the night. Conservatives tend to argue that freer trade will stimulate economic growth by opening new markets and forcing domestic producers to become more efficient. Liberals are concerned less, if at all, with aggregate growth rates than with the distribution of the fruits of growth. To them, freer trade means more profits for multinational corporations and fewer and less well-paid jobs for workers.
Then there is the conservative vs. environmentalist battle. Conservatives believe that growth produced by trade will spur innovation of planet-friendly technology; environmentalists believe that trade will simply increase the share of world production accounted for by the dirtiest, cheapest processes, and in any event will involve more drilling, more leaks, more emissions, more scarring of the earth.
These underlying tensions all come into play when a trade bill is on the table. Which is why the President had to expend so much energy to get the votes needed to bring fast-track to a final vote. In the course of his quest for the handful of Democratic votes he was able to muster in the senate, rumor has it that the President blew his legendary cool, or at least made a show of abandoning it in favor of a passionate defense of freer trade, in order to advance his “legacy”. Gone, at least in private, is “no drama Obama”. We now have a man who hears the clock ticking on his remaining tenure – only some 18 months (19 if you count most of January 2017). That’s intolerably long for critics who feel the president is telling the truth when he says he has no strategy for confronting ISIL, and desperately short for those in his party who feel he has left too many 2008 hopes unfulfilled.
When TPP passes, as it is almost certain to do, Obama will have clinched an economic legacy that includes a possible opening of new markets to American manufacturers, or a further deterioration of the position of America’s unskilled workers; the Supreme-Court-blessed complete transformation of the US health care system, for better or worse; serious blows to the coal and other fossil fuel industries in the interests of coping with climate change; an increase in the labor supply by de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants (the courts permitting); structural reforms of the banking system, that will or won’t prevent another financial meltdown; and the slowest recovery from recession in modern memory. There are more of the good, the bad and the ugly. I leave the affixing of each of those tags to a specific bit of the legacy to our readers.