Tuck

Slaughter & Rees Report - Communication Breakdown

February 10, 2014 --

One of the highlights of President Obama’s recent State of the Union address was his support for trade. He spoke of the job-creating potential of trade agreements the United States is currently negotiating with the European Union and with 11 Asia-Pacific countries. He then highlighted the importance of a special power-sharing arrangement—formally Trade Promotion Authority (TPA); colloquially, Fast Track Authority—that for decades has guided how the President and Congress jointly negotiate trade agreements with other countries.  Here were the President’s exact words.

“[N]ew trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help [U.S. companies] create even more jobs. We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets to new goods stamped ‘Made in the USA.’”

So far, so good. But then less than 24 hours later Harry Reid, who as the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate is the most powerful Democrat in Washington after the President, publicly declared his opposition to TPA.

“I’m against fast-track [negotiating authority].  I think everyone would be well-advised just not to push this right now … Everyone knows how I feel about this.”

Translation: new trade measures aren’t going anywhere, Mr. President. Given the mechanics of the Senate, where only 41 members are needed to halt progress on legislation, Reid’s statement was bracingly direct. Both of us have worked in the executive branch and have thus seen firsthand the value of White House outreach to Congress on sensitive issues. We were thus struck by Reid’s smackdown of the President. Pre-address, did any White House official approach Reid to gauge his support of the trade proposals? If not, why not? If so, what conversations transpired that still resulted in such a public rebuke of the President?

The question now is whether President Obama will rise to Senator Reid’s challenge. The early evidence is discouraging. Last Monday the two met at the White House. But according to the New York Times, “trade did not come up … Instead, the discussion focused on the coming midterm elections, in which Republicans could capture control of the upper chamber if they pick up six seats.”

What American companies and workers need now is not political leaders focusing on short-term partisan calculations. They need political leaders focusing on long-term national interests. Don’t worry, last week Republicans scored little better on this count. Last Thursday Speaker of the House John Boehner cast in grave doubt prospects for immigration reform. Why? Reports indicate he was unable to persuade enough fellow Republicans that immigrants don’t steal jobs and don’t destroy the American dream.

In the legendary words of Robert Plant, last week in Washington was basically one big communication breakdown. One of the age-old lessons about trying to open national economies to the world is it’s never easy. The gains, large though they often are in the aggregate, tend to build slowly and broadly. But the costs are often immediate and concentrated. Thus do public leaders need to summon the will and the way to communicate to fellow legislators and citizens alike why the gains of globalization are worth pursuing. Will President Obama rise to this task on trade? Will Speaker Boehner on immigration? We are waiting to be convinced.

What do you think?


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