Democratic senators to Obama: time to be a grownup

Senators John Kerry and Max Baucus have an interesting opinion article in the Wall Street Journal today urging ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. It’s interesting not so much for what it says as for whom it’s addressed to. Kerry and Baucus make in straightforward terms the case for the Colombia FTA—it would open new markets to U.S. exporters, Colombia has upgraded its labor laws and cracked down on attacks on union officers. Familiar stuff, and irrefutable. So who is it addressed to? To Barack Obama, of course. Obama has signaled that he wants the U.S.-South Korea FTA ratified separately and apart from the also pending Colombia and Panama FTAs. This allows him to pose as a champion of American exports while propitiating the labor union leaders who, still mourning all those unionized auto and steel jobs that disappeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s, hate free trade agreements of any kind. Last year Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin made it clear that the Democratic House would not approve any of the three FTAs; this year Speaker John Boehner and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp have said that they want not just one (Korea) but all three submitted to the House for approval.


Baucus is Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade agreements, and Kerry is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Baucus is signaling that the Colombia FTA will help exporters and will easily pass in the Senate; Kerry is signaling that there will be negative foreign relations consequences in Latin America if it is not. I take them to be backstopping Boehner and Camp and suggesting they might hold the Korea FTA hostage if the Colombia FTA is not sent to Congress for approval as well. They’re telling Obama to stop playing cheap political games and start acting like a grownup.


Why are Senate Democrats more amenable to free trade agreements than House Democrats? I think it’s because House Democrats, particularly those with high seniority, tend to represent heavily Democratic districts where the only threat to their tenure comes from the left—from black or Hispanic left-wingers, from union operatives, from antiwar groups. Keep these folks happy and you’re in for life. Senate Democrats, on the other hand, represent whole states. They tend to keep in contact with business leaders of various sorts. And they tend to be more vulnerable to Republicans in general elections than to Democrats in primaries. Max Baucus has been reelected in Montana by margins as low as 50%-45% (in 1996) and has been especially cooperative with Republicans when Republican candidates have been doing well in Montana. And even though he represents Massachusetts, John Kerry got strong competition from Governor William Weld in 1996 and saw the state’s other Senate seat go to Republican Scott Brown.

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