The New Class War: McConnell will vote against free trade if it includes assistance for U.S. workers
"Free trade" is important to Republicans. It's one of those things that they rally around, and one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats have managed to keep passing no matter how frosty relations between the two parties might become. It is the ultimate business-friendly device, requiring the U.S. government to overlook disparities in environmental standards, worker protections, and all those other little irritants of international business in order to get a really ripping good price on some consumer product, often itself one that has been outsourced away from America to better take advantage of those more lax environmental or worker standards.
We're talking here about a party (and town) that obsesses daily over how business-friendly they can possibly be, which leads to a perhaps obvious question: what would it take to get compulsively free-trade Republican senators to vote against a free trade deal? Not only vote against free trade deals, but vote against ones they have specifically been demanding?
Simple. Put something in them that's meant to help American workers in some small, trivial way.
The administration had been refusing to move the pacts forward without Congress reauthorizing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which aids workers who lose their jobs due to international trade. Republicans allowed an expansion of TAA to expire back in February (even as they were advocating for their constituents to receive TAA payments). Congressional leaders yesterday struck a deal with the White House that will reauthorize TAA in return for moving on the pending agreements. But McConnell is so adamantly opposed to helping workers who are harmed by trade that he vowed to vote against a free trade deal that includes a reauthorization of trade assistance:
“I’ve never voted against a trade agreement before — but if the administration were to embed TAA into the Korean trade agreement, I would be compelled to vote against it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters.
Well, there you go. Free trade is very, very important to Republicans but, like everything else in Washington this year, there's a Republican willing to loudly ditch their support if it contains provisions to help American workers that might be affected by their policies. We can't do that. If oil companies want subsidies, fine, if businesses need tax breaks, no problem, and if we want to open trade with certain other countries, that's wonderful. But what's that – this bill might help some token subset of the middle class? Oh, well screw the whole thing, then.
In the spirit of unnecessary disclosure, I need to say that I don't really give a damn if these agreements get killed. I'm not a fan. The offending addition involved here, however, is simply a minor effort to help workers who find their own jobs outsourced. That Mitch McConnell is willing to nix his much-desired set of free trade bills because it might dare include a provision to help the working class is more of the same dynamic that has colored the debt ceiling talks, the budget talks, the tax talks, and so on; Republicans are at this moment so focused on blocking help to average Americans, under the banner of austerity-for-some-but-tax-cuts-for-others, that they are willing to scuttle any other function of government in order to prevent it.
Mere compromise isn't good enough: if a proposal helps the lower or middle classes, it's a nonstarter. I wonder if any one of our professional political pundits has yet realized what a remarkable position this is – or how consistently Republicans have been demanding it.