THE BLOG

TPA Pivot Is Democracy at Work

06/19/2015 11:30 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

No one ever said legislating would be pretty.

President Barack Obama, Republican Congressional leaders and pro-trade Senate Democrats are working together to overcome special interest opposition on trade. This struggle is a perfect example of democracy functioning as it was constitutionally intended.

Those who lament partisan gridlock and political dysfunction will have a reason to celebrate if the Senate completes its half of the bargain. Passing the stand alone Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) measure that cleared the House with the commitment from congressional leaders that they will also advance an extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) for Obama to sign would be a win for American leadership in the global economy.

This is democracy at its best!

The only phrase on the front of the great seal of the United States -- e pluribus unum (out of many, one) -- sums up the essence of our Constitution. Divided power between the branches and between two legislative bodies was designed to ensure that no one faction could impose its will on the nation. They sought to foster collaboration.

Obama and Congressional Republicans have few areas of agreement. Opponents of their shared trade agenda seek to make that list shorter. Anti-trade advocates should question whether they are either blinded by an idealized partisanship that can only lead to paralysis, or captured by special interests at odds with the general welfare.

Last week's rebellion of Democrats against their own president to kill a bill that they have agreed on in the past is a textbook example of the tea becoming too hot in the House. As George Washington observed during the writing of the Constitution, "We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it." Following this design, the proponents of trade rightly pivoted the debate back to the Senate.

I visited the Capitol Thursday, just before the trade vote, and witnessed protesters brandishing a sign that promised a primary fight against any Democrat that dared to cross union bosses. (Does "This is the how money corrupts government," come to mind?) This is what is boiling the House tea.

A key constitutional feature of the Senate is six-year terms. While blunt union threats are real to liberal House members, only three of the fourteen Democrats voting for TPA are up for reelection in 2016. All three, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Patty Murray of Washington, and Ron Wyden of Oregon, are from the West with a greater sensitivity to the positive role of trade with Asia in growing jobs and increasing incomes in America.

The Constitution also gave the Senate authority over the approval of treaties and the confirmation of senior administration officials dealing with security and foreign affairs. Perhaps these responsibilities give senators a better understanding of the central role trade plays in American leadership. These votes are really about whether America will continue as a country others admire and respect or whether it will descend into petty, thinly veiled, protectionism.

I recently took a group of students from George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management to China, Japan, and South Korea. It was clear to these students from just a short visit that China is mammoth, expanding, and would not be displeased if America was pushed to the sidelines in Asia. Other countries in the region want to keep America actively engaged, but are deeply worried that we will retreat. Standing in Asia, it is impossible to see opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership as anything other than America raising the white flag and surrendering our leadership role.

Fourteen Democratic Senators already voted for TPA. They have already pierced through the hyperbole to understand the truth: Tearing down barriers abroad lifts American employment and income levels, while improving environmental and labor standards around the world. They know that the fate of TAA lies with their own party. The have all read the Constitution and know that America's continued leadership is at stake.

For any of those fourteen wrestling with fear of the backlash they may face for doing what they know is right, I leave you with the words of Michele Obama, "History has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own."

Support TPA and spark a contagion of hope!

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).