Dead on Arrival; Reviving the Free-Trade Free-for-All

Article excerpt


House Democrats recently inflicted a near-mortal blow to free trade. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, using her considerable procedural power, delayed indefinitely an up-or-down congressional vote on approving the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. True, scuttling this particular deal will neither crush the international trading system nor immediately inaugurate a new era of protectionist policies. Blocking a trade agreement with Colombia is not the 21st-century version of the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill.

But the absence of more full-throated public support and effective response from free-trade advocates underscores a broader and more fundamental weakness in the way open-market proponents participate in the electoral process and their approach to the new world of lobbying. Both need to change or free trade will continue its steep decline in public and legislative support.

Opponents of open markets have been gaining ground for the past decade, but their efforts fully blossomed in 2006 when union and environmental activists invested heavily in congressional campaigns of Democrats. free-trade advocates failed to match these efforts, and Mrs. Pelosi's bold procedural step reminds us that elections matter. Killing this free-trade agreement is a consequence flowing directly from the new Democratic majority. Unions and environmental interests did not hedge their bets. They unabashedly supported Democrats - and now enjoy the spoils of political victory.

Free-trade supporters take a different approach. Loath to appear overtly "political," they spread their financial contributions around to both sides of the aisle and sit on the sidelines of most big electoral fights, hoping for the best and seemingly engaged in asymmetrical warfare. Several Democratic lawmakers with a history of support for free trade voted with Mrs. Pelosi, winning plaudits from unions and environmental lobbyists, and feeling no political repercussions from open-market advocates.

Congressional policy decisions also follow the larger arch of public opinion. A recent Pew Research Center report highlights the turnaround when it comes to trade. In September 1997, a plurality of Americans (47 percent to 30 percent) believed free-trade agreements were a "good thing for this country." A little over a decade later, in April 2008, those numbers had flipped. Now only 35 percent say trade agreements are a "good thing," and 48 percent say they are "bad for the country. …