Politics & Policy

Trading Down

Freedom on the outs?

Fact: Of the 80-odd pieces of trade-related legislation introduced in the 110th Congress this year, only one would result in freer trade if enacted.*

But wait, it gets worse.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Republican voters are growing more skeptical about the benefits of free trade.

Is this the dawn of a new era of American protectionism? The signs do not look good.

Last winter, as most members of Congress were scurrying around attempting to erect trade barriers, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R, Tex.) brazenly introduced a bill to make it easier for President Bush to tear them down. Alas, the Democratic party’s position on trade is a lot more protectionist these days than it was back when President Clinton led a bipartisan coalition to pass NAFTA, and Hensarling’s bill — a renewal of the president’s authority to submit trade agreements to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote — is less likely to pass than the beleaguered Chicago Bears offense.

“I don’t know about the methodology of the poll, but if it is the case [that Republican voters are turning against free trade], I’m disappointed,” says Hensarling, author of the only free-trade bill this year,** about the Wall Street Journal poll. “It’s just a fundamental issue of protecting the economic freedom of American citizens.”

Hensarling was not the only one questioning the poll’s methodology. On the Cato Institute’s blog Thursday, Cato trade expert Dan Ikenson explained how the poll’s questions yielded misleading results:

Statement A: “Foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy, because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choices for consumers.” (32% of Republicans agree)

Statement B: “Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced U.S. demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products.” (59% of Republicans agree)

[…] as you can see, there is a clear bias in the manner of phrasing the questions. You’re not agreeing that foreign trade is good or bad, but that it’s good or bad because… And respondents are more likely to be familiar with one of the offered consequences of trade. Certainly, the issue of “potentially unsafe products” is fresh on our minds, thus respondents are basically escorted to that answer.

Ikenson has a point, but surely he would concede that most Democrats and quite a few protectionist Republicans on Capitol Hill are presenting the trade debate in precisely those terms.

What should conservatives be doing to correct voters’ perceptions of trade’s impact on the economy? “I think conservatives do not focus on the fundamental freedom issue here,” Hensarling says. “There’s a disparity when anyone who says they’re committed to the conservative principles of freedom would be against free trade. That’s why they call it free.”

Second, Hensarling says conservatives should keep stressing trade’s benefits to the economy, which is in the middle of a sixth straight year of growth. “With the exception of the recent subprime mortgage problem, we continue to enjoy one of the great periods of economic expansion in American history, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in American history,” he says.

Free trade has not led to greater unemployment; it has merely shifted jobs to industries in which America has a comparative advantage. Meanwhile, the idea American manufacturing is in decline is nothing more than an anti-trade myth, a bedtime story protectionist lawmakers tell their rattled constituents. (Today the globalization bogeyman came for manufacturing, but tomorrow, you could be next!) As Cato’s Ikenson explained on National Review Online Tuesday, “[U.S.] Manufacturing is thriving by historic standards.” The jobs lost in that sector stem from productivity increases, not outsourcing.

Hensarling says that even some conservatives have yet to be convinced on these points. “I still have to carry on the fight within the conservative movement in the House, within the Republican Study Committee. We are not of a united mind on that, so I have more work to do, but listen: We still have plenty of allies, and I think if the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee [New York Democrat Charles Rangel] was left to his own devices, he would probably take up some of these free trade agreements, but I think the speaker has him on a pretty short leash.”

A House Republican aide who works closely on trade issues said he might place the blame elsewhere: “The speaker has a mixed record but is probably more pro-free trade than her caucus right now,” he says, “so it’s not so much Pelosi standing in the way as Pelosi reflecting her caucus.

“It’s not a particularly pro-trade caucus to begin with,” he adds, “and because so many of the freshmen ran on pretty explicitly anti-trade platforms, it’s probably less pro-free trade than it was.”

As for Hensarling’s bill, the renewal of the president’s fast-track negotiating authority, this aide says, “I would say that the prospects for [fast-track renewal] are pretty dim.” But the aide was more optimistic about several bilateral free-trade agreements the president has submitted to Congress.

“In terms of moving the other [free-trade agreements] — Peru, Panama, and Columbia — I don’t know that [the WSJ poll] will make that much of a difference,” he says. “I think that, hopefully, we’ll be able to move those.”

He said that whatever the poll may portend for the future, for now “there remains a broad consensus within the Republican Conference on the advantages of trade.” Let’s hope it stays that way.

* Most of the anti-trade bills are aimed at China. Some U.S. manufacturers think China’s currency is artificially undervalued, which makes our imports from China less expensive and exports to China more pricy. This gives the Chinese an unfair advantage, they say.

** This is not counting free trade agreements with Peru, Panama, Columbia and South Korea, which the administration negotiated and sent to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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