Column – Gordon Campbell
The defeat that the White House suffered last Friday in its quest for effective fast track authority (aka Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA) need not spell doom just yet for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. The language used by …
Gordon Campbell on today’s showdown over Obama’s TPP trade agenda
The defeat that the White House suffered last Friday in its quest for effective ‘fast track’ authority (aka Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA) need not spell doom just yet for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. The language used by the Democrats’ House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – who became the key Congressional player in ensuring Friday’s defeat – was instructive. Pelosi talked about ‘slowing down’ the TPA/TPP sequence in order to achieve a better outcome for American workers, not about killing the deal entirely.
For now, the immediate problem is that the fates of two separate legislative measures have been tied together – namely, the TPA and the Trade Adjustment Authority (TAA) which is a Kennedy-era aid programme set up to provide job training and compensation for workers who lose their jobs in the wake of trade deals. In the House, the liberal group of Democrats who oppose the TPP – and who also oppose the ‘fast track’ authority that would enable US President Barack Obama to exempt the TPP from any meaningful Congressional scrutiny – came up with a surprise strategy to derail Obama’s trade agenda. Basically, they killed the TAA (which they like) in order to torpedo the TPA (which they hate).
Here’s how it went down: after calculating that the TPA proposal was likely to be passed by a combined vote of conservative Democrats and Republicans, a more liberal group of House Democrats switched aim and voted in significant numbers against the renewal of the linked TAA proposal, which would otherwise run out later this year. The TAA has to pass before the TPA can be sent to the President’s desk for his signature. As a sop to unions, the TAA had been created 60 years ago to soften the impact of trade deals, and Republicans have always opposed it. In the end – astonishingly – only one quarter of the Democratic caucus voted for TAA. It therefore failed, thus making the subsequent vote to approve the TPA virtually meaningless, for now at least.
What will the White House do in this coming week to salvage the situation? Logically, it has only three options. It can (a) fuse the TPA and TAA rather than continue to treat them as separate bills and then try to get the fused package through the House in a single vote. Unlikely : more Republicans would probably vote against the TAA in a fused bill and since the TPA only squeaked though by a 219-211 margin last Friday, fusion is probably not a winning gamble.
Otherwise, the White House can (b) try to fatten up the TAA package, and make it into a bigger, better sop to the American labour unions and to the left wing of the Democratic Party sufficient to get a fresh TAA vote across the line. Ultimately, a fairly large bloc of Republicans would still have to be convinced that a more generous TAA is the price they have to pay to achieve the subsequent TPA/TPP combo they really want. Yet Republicans have already done all they can in that respect – as many as 86 House Republicans (twice the usual number) saw that tactical necessity last Friday, and voted for the TAA. (This is one failure that Obama cannot blame on Republican obstructionism.) However, somewhere around 90 more Republicans would have to be willing to do likewise and vote tactically for a fattened TAA. That seems very unlikely.
In its third, most likely option, the White House can (c) try to de-couple the TAA from the TPA entirely and then send a naked, standalone version of the TPA to the Senate for final approval – and deal there with the possibility of another rebellion, this time by Democratic senators. Moreover, this (c) option of colluding openly with Republicans and embracing fast track authority without any TAA safety net at all for US workers would effectively put the Democratic Party leadership at war with the same trade unionists and party activists that it will need onside to retain the White House in 2016.
That 2016 presidential campaign is the wider backdrop for these bitter fights over the TAA/TPA, and for the final battle over the TPP. Obama himself is already shaping up as an electoral liability next year – ie, he has no ‘coat-tails’ that will help Democrats facing re-election, so there is no obvious incentive for anyone to die in a ditch for him this year over his trade agenda. In fact, supporting Obama in what has become a war between the left and right wings of the Democratic Party over trade policy has the potential to spill over and sink the Hillary Clinton campaign. Richard Trumka, the union leader who was one of the prime movers in the defeat of the TAA the other day, has indicated that any Democrats who side with the White House on this issue will be opposed by the union movement next year. The wider message is : pass the TPA and the TPP this year, and a lot of the Democratic Party’s grassroots activists and centre-left voters will stay home next year.
So, what will happen when the House returns to this issue later today ? To the Republicans, the official line is that this is now purely an in-house Democratic spat, and since the TPA has passed, there is no direct incentive for them to assist Obama over the TAA. That’s only the official line, though. If the White House can somehow provide inducements sufficient to rally more support among Democrats to make the TAA vote look close, then a few more Republicans might theoretically be willing to help out by gritting their teeth, coming across the aisle and voting for TAA.
At the moment though, it is not even close. Last Friday, only 40 Democrats voted for TAA, which lost by a whopping 302 -126 margin. As the Wall St Journal pointed out yesterday, the hardline Democratic opponents of the TPA and TPP package believe that if losing the TAA is the cost of defeating TPA and thereby sinking the TPP, then on the net balance, ordinary American workers would still be better off:
Many Democrats want to block the fast-track measure from advancing and view Friday’s vote as a tactical victory ensuring it remains stalled. Although Democrats have long backed the worker-aid program, many don’t see TAA as fully offsetting the economic blow they expect the Pacific trade deal would inflict on U.S. workers. “If nothing happens, I’m persuaded that the outcome for American workers is probably net better,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D., Ky.) said last week.
Hillary Clinton – who will be damned if she opposes the Obama she served as his Secretary of State, and damned by the liberal wing of the party if she supports him – has tried to come down on both sides of this argument simultaneously by saying… she’d have negotiated a better TPP deal for US interests, that slow-down (but not a stop) to the TPA process is currently advisable, and that ultimately no deal on the TPP is better than a bad deal for America.
Finally… that stance usefully underlines what the TPP has always been about. It is a deal skewed in favour of US corporate interests that’s currently stalled only because of the damage the TPP is likely to inflict on US workers. On Sunday, US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez made the over-riding purpose of the TPP very clear on ABC’s “This Week’s” interview, as reported by the Wall St Journal:
“I’m confident that we’ll move forward in this,” Mr. Perez said. “America needs to set the rules in the global economy, that’s why the President has been fighting for this.”
Exactly. That’s the TPP in a nutshell. America setting the rules in the global economy, while John Key and his mates struggle for the scraps.
Home At Last
Has there ever been religious music that sounds quite so desolate as sacred harp music? This music brought together the white rural poor of the southern and mountain regions of the US, and provided them with consolation. In that sense it was a form of white blues, and was prevalent during the 1930s among the rural poor of the southern and mountain regions of the US. Recently, it has found popularity again among the white urban middle class.
In the history of ‘shape note’ (aka ‘sacred harp’) singing, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers were probably the closest thing to pure royalty. The group was led by Paine Denson, the son of Thomas J. Denson and the nephew of Seaborn Denson – who had been the two central figures in the 1930s revival of a genre whose seminal hymn book dates back to the mid 19th century. A couple of tracks by this group (‘Rocky Road” and ‘Present Joys’) were featured in the 1952 Harry Smith compilation that inspired the folk music revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. To complete the historical chain, Paine Denson’s church was used as the recording studio in the early 2000s for the shape note songs included in the Nicole Kidman film Cold Mountain.
It used to be very hard to record sacred harp music properly – where do you put the microphones? – given the hollow square that exists at the centre of the choral space, at which the four segments of the choir direct what can be remarkable levels of volume. Here’s a track from the Cold Mountain sessions (“I’m Going Home”) that captures the peculiar, lonesome intensity of this music. The lyrics seem ecstatic at the prospect of death, and the flight to Paradise – sentiments with which your average member of Islamic State would probably agree whole-heartedly.
“Cuba” (written in 1859) is a personal favourite, in a recording here by Paine Denson’s group from the early 1940s. As usual with sacred harp music, the song begins with a couple of ‘fa sol la mi’ verses to get the singers in tune, before heading into these lyrics:
Through free grace and a dying Lamb,
Poor mourners found a home at last.
Go, fathers, and tell it to the world,
Poor mourners found a home at last.