Driving Free Trade Out of the Ditch

Surprising things keep happening in this 114th Congress, and the 24-hour successful "do-over" on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is no exception.

The road to legislative success is always pocked with potholes. But for the last several years, nearly every impediment was cast as the equivalent of the abyss. At the first sign of meaningful conflict, legislative aspiration and the deliberative process generally would slide into a black hole never to be seen again.

Earlier this week, it appeared that the Senate's effort to adopt Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) was headed in that familiar direction. But this time there was a new wrinkle: legislation being pushed by the President was slapped down by members of his own team. Every Democrat in the upper body voted thumbs down - except Delaware's Tom Carper (and a Profile in Courage award to him).

The margin of defeat, though, was delivered when a group of eight Democrats - all ostensibly free-trade stalwarts - announced a last-minute switch on the basis of the Administration's "lack of a commitment to trade enforcement." Making the blow all the more painful for the President was the fact that the turnabout was announced by Ron Wyden (D-OR), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, who had previously brokered the agreement with his Republican counterpart, Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), to move the bill through.

Yet that was yesterday (actually the day before yesterday). This is today. And today, the legislation has advanced thanks to a deal reached in a whirl of negotiations and even a call to 1600 Pennsylvania for the recalcitrant Democrats. On many occasions over the past several years, the White House and Congress have accused one another of driving good ideas "into the ditch." It is encouraging to see the White House and Congress regain the capacity to climb out of one. While there are many factors enabling this apparent accomplishment, none is more important than the return of active voting in the US Senate.

Senate leadership agreed to allow a votes on two companion measures the minority Democrats had sought: a customs and enforcement bill with provisions to counter perceived currency manipulation and legislation to extend trade preferences to sub-Saharan African countries.

The measures faced high hurdles - they needed to amass 60 votes. But the simple and obvious act of allowing Senators to place their views on the record was enough to break the impasse.

The Senate's ability to dust itself off and get back to work just a day after a humiliating pratfall is yet another promising sign of the return of productive partisanship. Yes, it can get ugly under the Capitol Dome -- cue cliché about sausage making now -- but the secret of American Democracy is resiliency - not efficiency. This week the Senate added to this proud tradition.