Some recent news headlines about the tea party and trade:
Tea party Republicans insist they’re in favor of free trade. They just don’t want to place a key trade negotiating power in President Barack Obama’s hands.
The deep suspicion of giving the president authority to fast-track trade pacts through Congress without amendments — which Republicans have traditionally supported — is just the latest rift between the Big Business-aligned mainstream GOP and the party’s more populist tea party wing, which dislikes the legislative mechanisms that make trade deals work and is loath to hand Obama another victory.
GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Walter Jones of North Carolina released a letter signed by 22 House Republicans on Tuesday condemning fast-track authority as a measure that allows Obama to “unilaterally write legislation making the pacts’ terms U.S. federal law.”
So does this mean the tea party will try to "shut down" the big trade negotiations going on right now?
One of the things the Cato trade people have done over the years is track the trade votes of all members of Congress, and categorize them as "free traders", "internationalists," "isolationists," or "interventionists." My Cato colleague Bill Watson looked at the votes of the Republicans involved, and he has doubts about the media narrative:
No one is surprised that 151 liberal Democrats in the House don’t support granting the president fast track authority to negotiate trade agreements. But two groups of Republicans have now signed letters to the President this week joining those Democrats in their opposition. The news media have reported the story as evidence that the tea party opposes President Obama’s trade agenda.
The signatories of the letters are an odd combination of young, party-line Republicans and old-guard isolationists who oppose free trade. Neither group has anything to do with the tea party and both seem confused about how fast track works.
So why have 27 Republicans come out against fast track? Cato’s online trade votes database can help us answer the question.
About half the Republicans who signed the letters are old-guard isolationists who have opposed trade for decades. Indeed, if you were looking for a list of anti-trade Republicans, you need look no further than these signatories. Some of them have been in Congress for over 20 years voting consistently for higher tariffs. ...
Most of the other Republicans expressing opposition to fast track haven’t been in Congress very long and have voted in lock-step the Republican leadership on trade issues. They have voted in favor of lowering barriers but only in reciprocal trade agreements and they support corporate welfare subsidies like the Export–Import Bank. I don’t know why they’ve decided to take a stand against fast track, which Republicn leadership strongly favors. Perhaps they really think it’s unconstitutional or perhaps their motives are largely partisan. Significantly adding to the confusion is the fact that of the five freshman who have taken a position against fast track, four of those signed a letter in June emphasizing their support for the policy.
Oddly, there is little doubt that this second group of moderate Republicans will vote in favor of any free trade agreement submitted to Congress even if the President gets “unconstitutional” fast track authority. That’s not at all true of the Democrats who have voiced their opposition—they can be counted on to oppose trade agreements at every step of the way. Ultimately these Republicans seem to be quite confused about what they want and how they should go about getting it. I recommend that they stop listening to their party’s lingering protectionist minority about fast track, or anything else for that matter.