Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Derailing Presidential Fast-Track Authority: The Impact of Constituency Pressures and Political Ideology on Trade Policy in Congress

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Derailing Presidential Fast-Track Authority: The Impact of Constituency Pressures and Political Ideology on Trade Policy in Congress

Article excerpt

This article explores the relative impact of constituency, political ideology, and labor strength on support for presidential fast-track trade authority in 1991 and 1997. Multivariate logistic regression analysis of legislators' positions shows that constituency factors have increased in importance while political ideology explains less of the variation in support for fast-track over time. The stronger constituency basis of legislators' positions reflects both the impact of NAFTA on Democrats' stances toward free trade and the growing divide among Republicans on trade issues. Future presidential bids for fast-track authority must center on specific trade agreements and will require grassroots support to surmount congressional opposition.

A continuing debate in the study of legislative behavior concerns the degree to which constituency factors explain congressional roll-call voting across policy areas. This debate is taking on added importance and complexity with the end of the Cold War and the growth of global economic interdependence. Studies of roll-call voting have tended to distinguish between domestic and foreign policy issues to argue that the President will have more latitude and sustained influence on foreign affairs-and that ideology, partisanship, and constituency factors will come strongly to the fore in domestic policy (Wildavsky 1975; Edwards 1989; Bond and Fleisher 1990). Today, the passing of the Cold War lessens the incentive for national politicians to maintain an appearance of unity and blurs the traditional distinction between domestic and foreign policy

In particular, international trade policies can have a direct affect on the economic well being of members' districts, threaten reelection of individual members, and even damage a party's governing fortunes. Experience with such consequences over time could produce a substantial erosion in members' deference to Presidents on such foreign policy issues. It thus becomes essential for scholars to clarify the extent to which constituency factors are influencing members' voting decisions on highly salient "intermestic" issues in the 1990s that blend domestic and international policy concerns. Perhaps the most critical and telling such decision occurred in November 1997, when Democrats abandoned President Clinton and failed to support renewal of his fast-track authority, despite having supported a Republican President in a similar delegation of authority in 1991. Fast-track is a procedural mechanism that subjects trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch to an "up or down" vote (usually within 60 or 90 days of submission by the President) by limiting committee consideration of legislation and prohibiting floor amendments. Close comparative analysis of members' positions on fast-track in 1991 and 1997 affords a unique opportunity to assess the changing role that constituency influence may play in congressional policy decisions in this new era and to theorize about the implications for presidential legislative strategy on similar policy votes in the future.

Fast-track expired under President Clinton's watch in 1994 and his renewal effort has been complicated by labor groups' ire at his support of NAFTA, congressional Democrats' charges that he has reneged on commitments to aggressively pursue unfair trade practices harmful to domestic constituencies (Gugliotta 1997), and growing dissension in the ranks of Republicans over free trade issues. Democrats questioned whether the President could be trusted to negotiate, for example, the expansion of NAFTA to include Chile in a Free Trade Area of the Americas on terms favorable to Democratic constituencies. Nearly a third of the GOP opposed Clinton's renewal bid as trade issues have become more divisive between economic nationalists, the party's mainstream free-traders, and legislators from moderate constituencies where labor interests are stronger. As the preliminary vote tallies were compiled in early November 1997, over 80 percent of House Democrats opposed fast-track and enough Republicans were either opposed or too undecided to form a blocking coalition. …

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