The White House trade agenda suffered a new setback last week when the Senate rejected a bill to strengthen the president's ability to conduct trade diplomacy with other countries.
Sounds like another sorry example of Washington's partisan paralysis, doesn't it?
Now consider this bizarre fact: Republicans offered the proposal and Democrats defeated it. Shouldn't it have been the other way around?
So here's a fresh reason to wonder whether President Obama is serious about creating jobs and encouraging economic growth by boosting exports.
We know he won't strike any new trade deals soon, following last week's embarrassing vote on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). It would have given the Obama administration the ability to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for up-or-down votes.
The up-or-down vote is crucial because it strips Congress of the ability to alter the text of an existing agreement through a never-ending series of amendments. Other nations will bargain with only one entity - the president, usually through his trade representative - and not with 535 members of Congress and all of their separate agendas.
If trade talks were a game show, they'd be "Deal or No Deal." A president who lacks Trade Promotion Authority compels other countries to declare, at the outset, "no deal." Nothing gets started - and this new failure probably even delivers a blow to the deliberations surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr. Obama has claimed is critical to American competitiveness in the global economy.
In the past, politics have explained the denial of TPA. During the Clinton years, congressional Republicans refused to grant it. During the Bush years, congressional Democrats refused to grant it.
These were bad choices, but at least they had a partisan rationale.
Now we've witnessed a brand-new species of gridlock: Senate Democrats have denied a president of their own party the power to hold meaningful trade talks with other nations. If the United States had a parliamentary system, this would be like a vote of no confidence in the government.
The result suggests that Mr. Obama's trade agenda is kaput, either because he can't persuade a handful of members of his own party to embrace his vision of creating jobs through exports or because he never really believed the vision he set forth in the first place.
More than 18 months ago, Mr. Obama promised that U.S. exports would double in five years. He also said that the passage of three pending trade agreements was crucial to this goal. He has called for their approval on many high-profile occasions, most recently during his jobs address to Congress.
"Now it's time to clear the way for a series of trade agreements that would make it easier for American companies to sell their products in Panama and Colombia and South Korea," he said on Sept. 8. "That's what we need to get done."
But they can't get done until Mr. Obama first submits them to Congress. They were negotiated during the previous administration (before President Bush's TPA expired) and Mr. Obama has talked them up for a year-and-a half. Yet they're still sitting on his desk in the Oval Office.
Once upon a time, supporters of free trade were hopeful that Mr. Obama meant what he said and that he was genuinely committed to helping U.S. companies sell their made-in-America products to foreign consumers.
Now pessimism has set in. "This is ridiculous," says Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, who is the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Every third foggy night, the president makes a speech and says we need these trade agreements." Now Mr. Roberts predicts that there won't be any trade agreements this year or next.
We may know soon. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak will visit the United States next month and the president will host a state dinner for him on Oct. 13.
Will Mr. Obama be able to tell Mr. Lee in person that he has bothered, at long last, to submit their trade agreement to Congress?
Mark your calendar.
Carol Keiser, a Truth about Trade & Technology board member, owns cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois.
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