Democrats rejected a stalwart union ally’s bid to chair the House panel charged with overseeing international trade, in favor of a more business-friendly choice.
Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday elected Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) as chairman of the panel’s Subcommittee on Trade, defying organized labor and left-leaning trade critics who had pushed for Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) to get the top spot in conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats.
In particular, Blumenauer drew ire among critics of corporate influence in trade agreements for his key role in enabling passage of trade promotion authority in 2015. Known as fast-track authority, it assures presidents an up-or-down vote in Congress on international trade deals, precluding a lengthy debate and amendment process. At the time, it was widely viewed as a prerequisite for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial 12-nation trade pact negotiated by then-President Barack Obama but opposed by a majority of House Democrats.
Referring to the subcommittee vote, a House Democratic aide who requested anonymity for professional reasons said, “They threw labor under the bus and gave them the middle finger.”
Unions are taking a more pragmatic approach, shifting their focus to keeping pressure on Blumenauer.
“This chairman, though he was not our preferred choice — you play the hand you get dealt, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said a union official involved in lobbying for Pascrell who requested anonymity to speak freely.
As if to validate unions’ concerns, the pro-business conservative Club for Growth praised Blumenauer’s selection.
Pascrell’s backers were particularly peeved that Ways and Means members did not give precedence to his recent experience as a trade policy leader.
Blumenauer has a year of seniority over Pascrell in Congress, having arrived in 1996.
But in the last Congress, when Democrats were in the minority, Pascrell served as the ranking Democrat on the trade subcommittee. Blumenauer declined the top job, which requires hard work without the perks and power of a chairmanship. (Blumenauer told HuffPost in an interview this month that he had simply wanted to focus on defending the Affordable Care Act, which was then under attack.)
And while defying party leadership is often grounds for political exile in Congress, Blumenauer has advanced despite a very public act of insubordination. He not only supported fast-track approval for trade deals in 2015 but also defied Democratic leaders in voting for a rule that enabled it to come up for a vote.
“It seems completely illogical,” the aide said.
The committee’s rejection of Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of pro-business free trade agreements far more anathema to unions than Blumenauer, might have provided some solace to progressive trade hawks. But most Congress watchers never considered Kind a real contender, thanks to his vote against the election of California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker this month.
Pascrell may have been hampered by the failure of left-wing activists to land spots on the Ways and Means Committee for some of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ most outspoken stars. A grassroots campaign to seat Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Ro Khanna (Calif.) ― a co-chair and vice chair of the CPC, respectively ― as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) on Ways and Means fell short last week.
The influential panel, which has broad authority over tax and trade policy, now has 25 Democratic members, of whom 11 are new. Eight of those 11 are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but since there are no ideological prerequisites for membership in the nominally left-leaning CPC, few of them are reliably populist firebrands.
Although trade policy is often the province of a small coterie of interest groups and experts, it could be an area of enormous influence for Democrats in the new Congress. President Donald Trump needs approval from both houses of Congress to enact a revised version of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trade policy has divided the Democratic Party in recent decades, with Obama and Bill Clinton signing major international trade agreements against the wishes of organized labor and many congressional Democrats.
Advocates for free trade agreements argue that they provide cheaper goods for American consumers and new markets for American exporters, as well as magnify soft U.S. power on the global stage.
Critics in organized labor have charged that lowering trade barriers with lower-wage countries costs the United States middle-class jobs and encourages a global race to the bottom in labor and environmental standards. Other opponents of trade deals focus on their protection of prescription drug patent monopolies and corporate sops like the international arbitration system, through which companies can challenge signatories’ domestic laws.
Trump broke with his recent Democratic and Republican predecessors by running as an unabashed opponent of international trade agreements. Dissatisfaction with those accords likely helped him win Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania ― industry-heavy states that Obama won twice.
A dirty secret of the present political moment is that unions and other left-leaning critics of past trade policy see Trump’s aggressive enforcement of trade rules in general and get-tough approach with China in particular as an improvement on the status quo.
“It’s the one area where Trump has kinda, sorta delivered,” said Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, which studies corporate consolidation and power.
The union official put it more bluntly: “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
The only question for organized labor, Stoller and other trade hawks is whether Democrats will counter Trump’s efforts to reconfigure American trade relations with their own, more progressive form of trade populism or return to the more corporate-friendly, Clinton-Obama paradigm.
“There has to be a reimagining of what our global order looks like ― and it isn’t going to look like America being a sucker all the time anymore,” Stoller said.
In his interview this month, Blumenauer strongly disputed any notion that he was a down-the-line free trade proponent, noting his opposition to the Central American and Colombian trade agreements.
He also insisted that he has a long record of supporting tougher enforcement of trade rules, including but not limited to the issue of illegal logging ― a key concern in Oregon.
“I was all over the Obama people because they weren’t aggressive enough,” Blumenauer said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that the Congressional Progressive Caucus has ideological prerequisites for membership. Also, it was updated to include a tweet from the Club for Growth.