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The Last Major Fault Line in the Democratic Party

The San Andreas Fault(David McNew/Getty Images)

photo of Alex Seitz-Wald
February 10, 2014

In 2008, the small world of liberal and labor advocates who care about trade policy—long disappointed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike—thought they had a champion in Barack Obama. During a primary debate hosted by the AFL-CIO, Obama pledged to “immediately” renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to “reflect the basic principle that our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, it should also be good for Main Street.”

“We were hoping for a different type of trade policy from this president. And that optimism continued into the first years,” says Celeste Drake, who works on trade for the AFL-CIO.

But now, as the White House pushes legislation to allow the administration to fast-track a massive new trade deal with a dozen Pacific countries, that hope has vanished. “We did not expect that the renegotiation of NAFTA would come in a form of super-NAFTA,” says Peter Maybarduk, who works on access to medicine issues for Public Citizen.


It’s a disappointment shared widely by liberal members of Congress, where the Obama administration’s trade agenda has now run aground, thanks to opposition from his own party. While most Americans probably pay little attention to trade, this is perhaps the last major fault line left in the Democratic Party. In a party more united than it has been in recent memory, trade pits liberal activists and members of Congress squarely against a more moderate White House.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty is giant, covering some 40 percent of U.S. imports and exports, with 29 draft chapters on everything from traditional trade issues such as tariffs to intellectual property and environmental and labor standards. The administration wants Congress to approve fast-track authority, something few presidents have enjoyed (and only after their own knock-down, drag-out fights with Capitol Hill). It would allow for a swift up-or-down vote in Congress on any new trade deal, with lawmakers having no ability to make changes.

But in the past few months, the administration has hit one setback after another. In November, the same month WikiLeaks published the first of two chapters of the secret draft treaty text, 151 of the 200 House Democrats signed a letter opposing fast-track authority. About 30 Republicans have taken the same position.

If that wasn’t enough, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came out the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address to say that he, too, opposes fast-track authority, and he even suggested that he might not allow a floor vote in the upper chamber.

“Reid sent a very clear message, but he only comes into play if the House passes it, and that is, at best, extremely uncertain,” said Public Citizen trade expert Lori Wallach.

Add to that a problem the White House created for itself. With Max Baucus becoming ambassador to China, the administration is losing its biggest ally on this issue in the Senate. Baucus, the only Democratic senator on the record supporting fast-track authority, will be succeeded as chairman of the powerful Finance Committee by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has been much more circumspect and has criticized the administration for what he sees as a lack of transparency surrounding negotiations.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the administration’s point man, acknowledges this is no slam-dunk. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Froman told National Journal. “These are always difficult bills, these are always difficult votes.”

Opponents have a litany of concerns. Global health experts worry that TPP will make it harder for poor countries to access generic drugs, Internet freedom activists worry it will curtail online liberty, environmentalists worry it will reward polluters abroad, and organized labor worries it will ship jobs overseas. In addition, some members of Congress say the fast-track authority impinges on congressional power, because the Constitution gives the legislature the power to set major trade standards.

Froman says the administration is addressing all of these issues. “This is not 1993 or 1994; it’s 2014. It’s 20 years later, and we’re responding to the concerns of a lot of those groups—but more than responding to those concerns, we’re driven by those concerns,” he said.

“At the end of the day, our bottom line is that we need to achieve meaningful outcomes in all the traditional areas of trade agreements,” Froman said. “But we also need to achieve meaningful outcomes on raising labor standards, raising environmental standards, assuring access to medicines, maintaining Internet freedom and the free flow of data in the digital economy—these are all areas that TPP is firmly focused on.”

The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office also points out it has taken steps to boost transparency, bringing more outside stakeholders in to engage with negotiators than ever before. Besides, they are renegotiating NAFTA, Froman said: “We’re at the table with Canada and Mexico and addressing issues that have come up since NAFTA.”

Bill Reinsch, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said that while Reid’s opposition slows TPP down, “it’s not dead in the water.” Still, Reinsch acknowledged a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Democrats won’t want to vote on fast-track authority until TPP is done—something he expects will take at least another six months—but once the treaty is done and the text becomes public, opponents will find plenty to attack, making fast-track authority harder to obtain. “The whole thing is going to be complicated,” he said.

When that point comes, the spotlight may turn to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In a bit of a role reversal, Reid has become something of Obama’s progressive conscience on this issue, while Pelosi is more cautious.

“It’s unusual,” says Neil Sroka of Democracy for America, the progressive grassroots group founded by Howard Dean. “Traditionally, we would have expected Nancy Pelosi to take this leadership role.” DFA and a coalition of other liberal groups have gathered 125,000 signatures urging Pelosi to take the same position as Reid.

“There are lots of reasons to oppose it, and not the least of which is political,” said Sroka, pointing to polling commissioned by the Communications Workers of America, which shows that 62 percent of Americans oppose fast-track authority, including a large majority of Republicans and independents. “We’re trying to stop candidates from running into a buzz saw on this,” Sroka added.

Drake, of the AFL-CIO, said she wouldn’t be surprised if TPP comes up in Democratic primaries. “Look at how many Democratic seats are coming up in the House,” she said. “Voters are going to want to know where the Democrats stand. Is it going to be more corporate-rights agreements that send more jobs overseas, or is it going to be a different approach?”

Stand by for the biggest civil war in the Democratic Party, if anyone bothers to pay attention.

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