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Obama's trade agenda is in trouble. Here's why.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

President Obama suffered one of the most stinging defeats of his presidency last week, as members of his own party in the House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a trade package he had championed. Supporters of Obama's trade agenda are now looking for a way to revive the package, but the odds of success look grim.

Last week's vote was over Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a set of programs that help workers who lose their jobs due to foreign competition. It's part of a package that also includes Trade Promotion Authority, which guarantees a prompt up-or-down vote on trade deals negotiated by the president. Obama argues he needs TPA (also known as "fast track") in order to conclude negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial trade deal involving about a dozen Pacific Rim nations. But opponents of the TPP oppose fast track for the same reason, and last week they scored a major victory when opposition from House Democrats derailed the trade legislation.


Republican leaders in Congress support the legislation, and they may bring it up for another vote this week. However, the New York Times reports that "there were few indications Monday that large numbers of Democrats were ready to reverse themselves and send the trade legislation to the president’s desk."

Here are five reasons Obama's trade legislation — and with it, his broader trade agenda — is failing.

1) The filibuster

The problem facing President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress is that any package that can pass the Senate won't be able to pass the House, and vice versa.

In the Senate, Democrats refused to vote for any legislation that didn't include Trade Adjustment Assistance. So Republican leaders agreed to include TAA in the trade package in order to win their vote.

But in the more polarized House, this was a nonstarter: most House Republicans opposed it because it included TAA, while most Democrats opposed it because they didn't like the rest of the bill.

The House allows legislation to pass with a simple majority, but the Senate has a de facto rule requiring the support of 60 out of 100 senators to pass legislation. Without this supermajority requirement, things would have been a lot simpler, because the Republican majority would have been able to pass the legislation with minimal help from Democrats.

TPA enjoys a slim majority in the House and likely would get a majority in the Senate as well (49 Republicans voted for the Senate bill, so they'd only need to win one Democrat to get a majority of 50). However, under Senate rules, legislation needs 60 votes to pass. So the legislation needed at least 11 Democrats to vote for the bill. But the compromises required to get those 11 Democrats on board created a package that most House Republicans didn't like.

So the filibuster created a Catch-22 for supporters of trade legislation: anything they did to get Senate Democrats on board would turn off House Republicans, and vice versa. So even though majorities in both the House and Senate likely support TPA, the legislation can't become law.

2) The Democratic base

Last Friday's vote in the House of Representatives represented a triumph for liberal groups, especially the labor movement, which has campaigned aggressively to defeat TPA as a way to derail the TPP. These groups didn't just kill legislation they thought was bad, they did it in the face of concerted lobbying by a Democratic president.

An important development was AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka's April announcement that he would freeze donations to members of Congress pending the vote on fast track. That got the attention of Democrats, many of whom rely on labor money to run their campaigns. The pressure worked, and rank-and-file Democrats in the House rebuffed President Obama's pleas to support his trade package.

3) The Republican base

House Republicans didn't actually need Democrats to pass the Senate trade package. They're in the majority, and House rules allow legislation to pass with a simple majority vote.

But Republicans in the House are under a lot of pressure not to vote for Trade Adjustment Assistance, which conservatives regard as wasteful government spending. And because TAA was in the Senate bill, the whole package can't pass unless the House passes it as well.

The Club for Growth, which funds primary challenges against Republicans who are judged insufficiently conservative, declared the vote on TAA a "key vote." That was an implicit threat to mount primary challenges against any Republican who voted yes. And the threat worked — House Republicans overwhelmingly voted against TAA, just like Democrats did, even though most Republicans would like Obama to have fast track.

4) Cronyism in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement

Obama is seeking Trade Promotion Authority to help him pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he is currently negotiated with countries such as Chile, Japan, and Vietnam.

A lot of opposition to fast track comes from old-fashioned protectionists, but support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership has also been eroded by concern over provisions that have little to do with trade. These include investor-state dispute settlement — which critics say makes it too easy for private corporations to challenge regulations they don't like — and measures designed to restrict generic drugs and boost the profits of big drug companies.

These issues weren't necessarily the top priority for congressional Democrats who voted against the treaty — a lot of them sounded protectionist themes about the loss of American jobs. But concerns over the cronyism helped turn liberal intellectuals like Paul Krugman against the treaty. That's important because it means the treaty lacked much of the trans-ideological elite support that previous trade deals have enjoyed.

5) The secrecy of the TPP negotiating process

The secrecy of the TPP negotiating process between the United States and other nations has given critics of the treaty a bit of an unfair advantage. If they make exaggerated claims about the treaty, defenders can't easily set the record straight. Moreover, the very concept of negotiating a treaty that affects everything from copyright law to investment disputes, and keeping it secret until negotiations are over, rubs a lot of people the wrong way. (It will become public before Congress votes on it, but only after it's too late to make changes.)

Supporters of the TPP get exasperated by this. They argue that it would be impossible to negotiate a trade deal if every step in the process were public. And they're not wrong.

But as trade deals have gotten more complex and more controversial, the secrecy looks less like a necessary expedient and more like a conspiracy against the public. If these deals are going to affect so many aspects of people's lives, shouldn't there be an opportunity for public input before the final draft is completed?