Rep. David Young, an Iowa Republican, was recently at a Des Moines event commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was buttonholed by an activist urging him to vote against giving President Obama trade-promotion authority—aka fast track—to allow him to expedite a giant new Asia-Pacific trade deal, the issue where Obama and congressional GOP leaders seem most likely to come to agreement this year. The activist, Matthew Covington, urged Young to beware of the executive overreach that Obama would be engaging in if he secured fast-track powers. “I said, ‘This is such a large trade deal and the Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate that, not the president. This would give the authority to the president. But we elected you to give you that authority, to see what’s in this trade deal, to make sure it doesn’t jeopardize Iowa values,’ ” recounted Covington.
That sounds like a garden-variety pitch from a grass-roots constitutional conservative. Except Covington is no Tea Partier. He is an organizer with a 40-year-old progressive organization called Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement that has made its name in recent years fighting factory farming, payday lending, and wage-theft; is closely tied to labor unions; and last year hosted Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, for a barnstorming tour of Iowa. The organization, like many others on the left, is opposed to granting Obama fast-track authority, which requires Congress to vote on trade deals with an up or down vote, and to the huge new 12-nation trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Covington worries that the TPP will undermine U.S. wages and manufacturing, as many Americans believe NAFTA did, while also giving multinational corporations new powers to run roughshod over U.S. food safety and environmental regulations.
To try to block fast track and the TPP, liberal groups and labor unions are not organizing only among their own but are also reaching across the spectrum to conservatives skeptical of fast track and TPP. This left-right alliance has been duly noted in recent months. What has gone underappreciated, though, is just how much the opponents of the trade deals on the left are appealing to the right very much on the right’s own terms. After years of ridiculing the Tea Party movement’s talk of Obama as an autocrat on issues such as immigration and health care, the left is now pushing those very buttons on trade, noting that fast track would give Obama vast powers and that the TPP would create a new international arbitration panel where corporations could challenge local, state, and national laws. Some left-leaning advocates are going so far as to link the trade issue to the conservative litany of Obama outrages: the IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups, Benghazi, and the “Fast and Furious” gun-running fiasco, among others.
Essentially, the left is saying to conservative Republicans: If you’re worried about executive overreach and global governance, then you really had better get upset about fast track and TPP. “I tell them I’m concerned about local communities being able to do what they want to,” says Rep. Keith Ellison, the liberal Democrat from Minneapolis and a leading opponent of fast track and TPP, who has been reaching out to House Republicans on the issue. “This is essentially an ‘America’ issue. The last thing I want is some international unelected body deciding these critical questions.” Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at Ralph Nader–founded Public Citizen, says she reminds conservatives that TPP would “allow people to go to these extra-judicial tribunals to have the U.S. treasury give them compensation without appeal.”
This cross-ideological coloring makes the trade debate the most idiosyncratic and entertaining issue in the rut that is national politics today. But whether it will be enough to block fast track and TPP is another matter. The fact is there are a striking number of conservative Republicans who normally rail against Obama’s overreach and threats to national sovereignty but who are setting aside those concerns in this instance. Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have both come out for fast track and TPP, saying their desire to spur economic growth and assert American leadership abroad trump their constitutional misgivings. So have the Heritage Foundation and two of the biggest conservative activist groups, Freedom Partners and the Tea Party Express. Lining up against the trade deals are a host of other Tea Party-aligned groups and, so far, roughly 20 conservative House Republicans who have gone on the record opposing fast track.
The issue has become a moment of truth for the Tea Party movement and conservative Republicans more generally: Do they mean what they’ve been saying all along about the need for checks and balances and constitutional restraints on the executive and global bodies like the U.N.? Or were those just handy rhetorical weapons for issues where Republicans opposed Obama, such as universal health care, weapons that can be laid aside when GOP leaders—and the business lobby—decide it’s in their interest to do so? “There’s a great number of people in Congress on both sides of the aisle who are very beholden to big business—what I call the chamber of crony capitalism,” says Jay Devereaux of Unite in Action, one of the Tea Party groups that received heightened scrutiny from the IRS. “It’s all about favors for their buddies, and the average American be damned and it’s really unfortunate.”
You can track the Tea Party split on the issue by following the Twitter feed of End Global Governance, the name given to an umbrella group of conservative organizations fighting against the trade deals on the Hill. The group, led by Tea Party activist Stephani Scruggs, has been visiting the offices of House Republicans and reporting its mixed results. The group reported with a distinct note of betrayal that Rep. Ken Buck, the conservative Coloradan who lost his Senate bid in 2010, was in favor of fast track, as was Rep. Tom Emmer, a new conservative House member from Minnesota. It was relieved, on the other hand, to report that it got a warmer reception in the office of Rep. Morgan Griffith, from western Virginia. (“I’m not likely to support something that gives the president so much authority,” Griffith told me later. “I’m not sure I have the confidence in the president and his people to get it right.”) Scruggs told me that she and her allies have gotten a “pretty good response” overall but that it has definitely been disheartening to see so many conservative Republicans setting aside their usual wariness of Obama now. “What comes into play here are really huge lobbies,” she says. “Big Ag comes in … and they put on a lot of pressure, with compelling arguments that are really well-funded. Citizen activists like myself, we’ve got to work a little harder.”
Meanwhile, out across the country, local Tea Party groups are agitating on the issue. Terry Batton, of the Barbour County Tea Party in Alabama, told me that fast track and TPP were hot topics at quarterly meeting of his state’s Tea Party coalition. “We’re definitely against the trade agreements,” he said. “The long and short of it is that they’re just giving away our sovereignty.” In Wisconsin, Sandi Ruggles of the state’s chapter of the Eagle Forum said she and her fellow members have been sending emails and making calls on the issue. “Obama’s giving himself way too much authority—that’s an authority that should go through Congress,” she said. Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, has been going on conservative talk shows to speak against fast track and TPP—“Obamatrade”—and senses a growing opposition. “There’s beginning to be a real awakening on the right pointing out the absurdity of doing [the trade deals] when Republican legislators are complaining about Obama seizing too much power and entrusting even more power to the president, it’s absurd, and really breaks faith with the voters who elected them in 2014,” he said. “The bottom line is we’re going to see a number of Republicans coming out and expressing opposition to trade-promotion authority.”
It was hard to detect any such opposition at the House and Senate hearings on trade last week. One after another, Republicans fell over each other to flatter the Obama administration’s point man on the issue, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, distinguishing him, and the agenda he is pushing, from the rest of the administration. Few challenged Froman’s assertion that passing fast track, far from handing trade authority to Obama, would put Congress in the “driver’s seat” on the issue. Rep. Paul Ryan, who was chairing the House hearing in his new capacity as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, joked that he normally would be as likely to trust Obama with new powers as he was to “trust the Patriots with the footballs at Lambeau Field,” but said that fast track was different. Rep. Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican, trumped everyone with this softball greeting to Froman: “Thank you for what you’re doing for our country,” he said. “If you step back, this [trade deal] could be great. … In your opinion, how great could it be?”
Afterward, Froman told me it was highly encouraging to see such support from Republicans, including conservative ones. He chalked it up to a recognition on the GOP side that voters want to see something get done in Washington and that “the president’s trade agenda is at the top of a list of issues that a lot of people feel they can work with the president on.”
But the opposition is far from giving up. With a majority of House Democrats likely to oppose fast track, it would only take a sizable minority of House Republicans to derail it when it comes up for a vote in the next month or two. And so the traditional opponents of free-trade agreements are plugging along, stoking the fires of opposition on the right. The Teamsters have retained a Republican-leaning lobbying outfit, the Keelen Group, to reach out to conservative members. And the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a group that lobbies against free-trade agreements and has ties to both industry and organized labor, is provoking conservatives’ innate distrust of the GOP establishment by noting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise to return the Senate to “regular order” conflicts with the rush and lack of transparency involved in passing trade deals via fast track. “McConnell said, ‘I’m bringing back regular order,’ but in this case it’s suspending regular order, passing something with no amendments before you even know what's coming from the smoky back room in the other branch—it’s procedurally far worse,” says Michael Stumo, the organization’s CEO. He predicts that the trade deals are in more trouble on the right than GOP leaders and the Obama administration think. “This is a real street fight,” Stumo said. “They’ve granted [Obama] a massive amount of authority and don’t want to grant him more.”