The GOP Is Not the Free Trade Party

Even if Jonathan Martin says so:

Next month’s election could prove decisive on something that has nothing to do with Iraq, control of Congress, or the House page program. At stake? The free-trade consensus in the Senate that has ensured easy passage of every measure liberalizing trade put forth by the past two administrations. Democrats only need six seats to gain a majority in the Senate, but the election of five new Democrats and one independent in particular would have even greater ramifications. Should seats currently held by free-traders in Ohio, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Missouri go to “fair traders” – and should the sour environment for Republicans prevent them from gaining any seats from Democrats – the bipartisan commitment to free trade in the Senate would almost certainly end, torpedoing the prospects for any significant legislation in President Bush’s final two years and perhaps longer while fundamentally altering the character of the upper chamber.

Martin on the one hand says there is some “bipartisan commitment to free trade” and on the other hand that we need a Republican majority to avoid trade restrictions. Martin mentions NAFTA but forgets to mention that it was the efforts of a Democratic Administration that secured its passage. The House vote on NAFTA was 234-200. Of the 234 votes for NAFTA, 102 came from Democrats. Yes, there were Republicans who voted against NAFTA.

Should we also remind Mr. Martin that President Clinton said no to steel tariffs but President Bush imposed them? Bruce Bartlett gets it right with his The President’s Rotten Record on Trade:

GOP control of Congress was very thin, and with the economy in recession many Republicans were skittish about voting to promote trade if it might be seen as threatening domestic jobs. Republicans in the steel-producing districts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia were especially fearful of electoral retaliation. They demanded that Bush do something to help the steel industry as the price for their vote on trade-negotiating authority. In June 2001, Bush initiated an investigation by the U.S. International Trade Commission into whether the steel industry was being injured by imports. It was virtually preordained that the commission would find such injury, because of the low legal threshold for such a determination. The commission did indeed find injury in December. Under the law, President Bush had until March to decide what actions he would take to protect the steel industry. At the same time, Republicans from agricultural areas were complaining about low farm prices and demanding more subsidies, even though Bush had promised to move toward a more market-based agricultural system during the 2000 campaign. It was vital Bush do the right thing on the 2002 agriculture bill because the whole point of the trade negotiations, known as the Doha Round, was to remove subsidies for agriculture, which cost taxpayers in the industrialized countries dearly while making it impossible for farmers in the developing world to compete and better themselves. In both cases, Bush made exactly the wrong decision … Bush’s overt protectionism may not be that great. But in overall policy, he’s the most protectionist president since Hoover. All of Hoover’s successors until Bush understood the fragility of free trade and the dangers of playing politics with it. They also understood that there is an inherent drift toward protectionism that needs to be vigorously resisted and offset by aggressive trade-opening measures. Bush has gone in the opposite direction, repeatedly using protectionism to buy short-term political support and sabotaging multilateral trade negotiations.

Bruce correctly notes that there are trade protectionists in the Democratic Party, but he is under no delusional that a Congress that rubber stamps every wish of the Bush Administration will put us back on the path to trade liberalization.