- - Wednesday, May 13, 2015


A filibuster led by Democrats derailed President Obama’s request for the fast-track authority that would require the U.S. Senate to vote up-or-down on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The negotiations, the filibuster and the fix the president put himself in says everything about the differing Republican and Democratic positions on trade. It says a lot, too, about Mr. Obama’s ineptitude in dealing his own congressional partisans. A deal is in the works.

Once upon a time the Republican Party was the party of protectionism and high tariffs, which is why the party was anathema in a solidly Democratic South for more than a century. The Smoot-Hawley tariffs that many believe led to the breakdown in international trade, the collapse of the world economy and the Depression, was written by two leading Republicans of the day. It was enacted by a Republican Congress and became law over the signature of a Republican president. Both Democrats and Republicans embraced free trade after World War II, in theory if not always in practice, and protectionism fell into disrepute.

Gradually, however, the Democrats became more and more dependent on the labor unions, determined to keep jobs in America at the price of their own greed, and eventually the Democrats adopted the views and trade nostrums of Hoover-era Republicans. By the 1990s, President Clinton pushed the North America Free Trade Act through Congress, lowering trade barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico, with help from the Republicans. He appointed Bill Frenzel a former congressman and free-trade advocate to lobby for the votes he needed to prevail, and struggled mightily to get the few Democrats he needed.

The free-trade atmosphere has hardly improved since. The liberals of the extreme left now dominate the Democratic caucuses in both houses of Congress. Mr. Obama has a gift for infuriating his natural trade allies in the Senate and makes it difficult for Republicans to support him. He keeps much of the negotiations secret and he has added so many extraneous and costly provisions to legislation that ought to be about lowering trade barriers. Earlier this week it emerged that he tried to stuff more of his unilateral immigration “reforms” into the measure. Additionally, some Republicans in Congress blame U.S. trade policies for the job losses that may be more traceable to regulatory excess and high taxes that put the United States at a disadvantage in the world marketplace.

Trade creates jobs, here as well as abroad, and the energy revolution, along with tax cutting, could lead to a rebirth of manufacturing in the United States.

Phil Gramm, a Republican senator from Texas when NAFTA was being negotiated, rightly observed that “no nation can afford to abandon international trade in today’s world even for five years” and expect to survive. Some Republicans suggest that Mr. Obama should be left to stew in the toxic juices cooked by his own hand, but that would be shortsighted. Congressional Republicans should swallow hard, put aside understandable temptation, and do the right thing. They should take a look at the trade legislation at hand and vote yes or no on the legislation’s merits. That’s what they were elected to do.

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