In Washington, two arguments over trade are about to roil the party of business and tea partyers. Each scrap will feature a Georgia Republican.
Both U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and Rep. Buddy Carter risk stirring up the most uncompromising elements of the GOP base in 2016, when both will be on the ballot.
Last weekend, Isakson was tapped to deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s weekly address. Under normal circumstances, the chore is a predictable one. Whatever Obama is for, you’re against.
But this wasn’t politics as usual. Isakson made an important pitch for giving Obama the fast-track negotiating authority the president wants in order to close a 12-country Pacific Rim trade deal before he leaves office.
“Trade should not be, nor was it ever intended to be, a partisan issue. It’s about creating more jobs for the American people,” Isakson told the video camera. He warned against economic “isolation.”
Under “trade promotion authority,” which federal lawmakers have approved several times in the past, Congress lays out general guidelines for the trade agreement under discussion. But the details are left to the administration. The resulting treaty must still be approved by Congress, but on an up-or-down vote with no amendments and no filibuster.
Fearing another North American Free Trade Agreement, union-backed Democrats in Washington have rebelled, to the point that House Speaker John Boehner this week chided Obama for his inability to control his troops — a charge usually leveled at Boehner and his hard-core caucus.
If Obama is to win his fast-track authority, the president must rely on Republicans hanging together. And that was what Isakson was about in his weekend address.
“Congress still has the final say in approving a trade agreement. And I want to be very clear,” Isakson said. “Republicans will not support any attempt to override U.S. law by sneaking provisions into any trade agreement. That includes provisions on immigration policies.”
That last part didn’t register until 24 hours later, when U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., charged that the fast-track legislation could allow Obama to increase the number of foreign guest workers allowed into the U.S.
“The president has circumvented Congress on immigration with serial regularity. But the TPA would yield new power to the executive to alter admissions while subtracting congressional checks against those actions,” Sessions wrote in a five-point manifesto.
After watching Isakson on the video, I put a call into the senator to ask why he had stepped out on this limb. His answer was simple: Georgia has become an exporting state. The Port of Savannah is now the only Eastern Seaboard harbor that ships out more goods than it brings in.
With a widened Panama Canal about to be finished, the senator said, the Pacific trade deal will decide the flow of goods from west to east, or east to west. If the U.S. isn’t present to help write trade rules, Isakson said, China will have the largest say. And that won’t be good for Georgia workers.
It’s an old story: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Grant the president fast-track authority, Isakson said, and “the world knows that Obama can negotiate a deal.”
(For the record, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said her boss is supporting fast-track authority as well.)
Down on the Georgia coast, Carter is the one taking the flak. Carter has only represented his 1st District for four months. Even so, the Washington-based Club for Growth, a conservative anti-regulation group, just finished drilling Carter with $23,000 in TV attack ads.
Carter’s sin is his support for the Export-Import Bank, a kind of federal trade agency that helps finance foreign purchases of U.S. exports. Its license will expire June 30, and tea partyers have condemned the agency as a den of crony capitalism.
But that’s not the tricky part. Delta Air Lines, Georgia’s largest private employer, also wants the Export-Import Bank handcuffed.
The bank currently offers financial guarantees to Boeing for its sales of wide-bodied jets to airlines run by Middle Eastern governments. That amounts to an unfair subsidy of foreign competitors, Delta CEO Richard Anderson charges.
Other members of Georgia’s congressional delegation can duck this sensitive issue, but Carter can’t. His district is home to business-plane manufacturer Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., which depends heavily on Export-Import Bank guarantees to sell its own planes overseas.
“Obviously, the largest private employer in the 1st District — I have to pay attention to someone who employs over 10,000 people in our district,” Carter said in an interview. “I don’t represent special interest groups in Washington, D.C.”
Not that the congressman wants Delta as an enemy. “I understand Delta’s dilemma. They have a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. There’s no question about that,” Carter said. “I just hate to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If this is something we can fix and try to save, then let’s do it.”
The lesson here is quite simple. We’re about to head into an election season that will feature much rhetoric about government not being in the business of picking economic winners and losers.
This is hogwash, of course. In the real, wider world of international competition, that’s what government does. It always has and always will. And on that stage, laissez faire can be tantamount to laissez fail.
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