Trade deals have always been a complicated affair for Democrats, as the idea behind them is to break down trade barriers and encourage the free flow of goods and services between countries; something that is often hampered by things like tariffs placed on foreign goods (to protect domestic industries) and different rules and regulations regarding importing and exporting goods that different countries produce or consume.
Trade deals are meant to get the countries signing on to them to agree to minimize the barriers by essentially treating all goods coming from signatories of the deal the same way. In the US, that’s not usually a good thing for union workers, because it means the companies they work for will have to compete with foreign companies selling similar products but not offering the same workplace protections, decent salaries, etc. that US union workers enjoy. When the US signs onto a trade deal, it can mean a weakening of labor protections here in this country and a loss of jobs, as opening the floodgates to let cheap goods made by people getting paid low wages in foreign countries, hurts our job market.
(We’ve been through all of this before with a trade deal called NAFTA, which Bill Clinton pushed through, involving US, Mexico and Canada.)
So you have these dueling political interests for Democrats on trade–they don’t want to be seen as stifling competition or hampering economic growth, but they also have to consider the concerns of labor, which constitutes a strong base of support for the party.
What is most concerning with the trade deal–the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)– is that the terms of the deal have not been made public. The President is looking for “Fast Track” authorization to be able to finalize the deal with trade partners and submit it to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote with no amendments.
Members of Congress can go in and read draft provisions of the deal, but they can’t make copies of it or reveal specific information. A number of Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, have been opposed to provisions which would allow for the creation of a neutral international arbitration panel to impose financial penalties on a country if it has regulations (environmental, consumer protection, etc.) which investors/companies feel are unfair to their interests. It could essentially lead to US taxpayers being fined for having these regulations in place, thus creating pressure on politicians to eliminate them.
And in a stroke of irony the deal is driving Tea Party Republicans (who can’t stand foreigners playing a roll in the good ol’ USA business) with the Progressives in Congress. Many members of the media are portraying the vote as the Democrats handing Obama a defeat (the Wall Street Journal headline this morning was “Democrats Stymie Obama on Trade”) the very real truth is none on this side of the hemisphere can remember a time when the Republican leadership delivered any sort of victory to their party.
In a vote earlier this week on the TPP, specifically on a provision to expand a workers-aid program meant to provide support/training to workers hurt by this trade deal, Democrats opposed to the deal (who would normally support legislation to help workers) voted against this and were joined by a good number of Republicans who think such worker protection efforts are a waste of money. The Dems did it to signal opposition to the overall legislation, and to show support for American labor workers, whose jobs could very well be put at risk by Asian workers if the deal went through. The opposition was a bold move as the progressives turned their back on the President, a very whiny President, who needed this deal arguably at the expense of said American workers jobs for his own legacy. So by and by our Democrats in Congress did a noble thing, they disregarded their leader, and his call for footnotes in history text books, and instead chose to support their hard working constituents.