Shadow Government

How to Swing the Votes to Win the TPA Fight

Achieving the decisive votes to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives will require targeting two groups — Republicans concerned with granting President Barack Obama more authority and Democrats fearful of union retribution. Figuring out how to build a message that can appeal to these two seemingly incongruous populations is essential ...

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Achieving the decisive votes to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives will require targeting two groups — Republicans concerned with granting President Barack Obama more authority and Democrats fearful of union retribution. Figuring out how to build a message that can appeal to these two seemingly incongruous populations is essential to legislative success.

I suspect that nearly every Republican and many Democratic Representatives believe in their heart of heats that expanded trade is good for America, that it would add jobs, grow incomes, and bolster our global leadership position. If members who shared this belief voted for TPA, it would pass with flying colors.

However, there is always the temptation to grasp on to some excuse for opposing TPA to avoid the wrath of populist outrage that surrounds any trade vote. On the right many activists hate the president, have the ill-informed belief that TPA is about giving him more power, and are incensed by the thought of doing so. On the left, the unions have pledged to support a primary challenge for those who support TPA.

Getting the last few votes that will make the difference requires overcoming these objections and attracting the required members’ support by addressing their concerns at multiple levels: a specific case for support, grassroots activation, and a big-picture pitch.

The Case for Republicans

Overcoming Republican resistance should begin by ensuring members on the fence understand that TPA opponents are trying to stir confusion amongst Republicans to discourage them from supporting what is at its core a reaffirmation of the market principles upon which the nation and the party is based. Supporting TPA does not equal “giving Obama more ink in his pen” as some robo-calls are suggesting.

First of all, the TPA bill that passed the Senate extends into the next presidency. Secondly, TPA is primarily about Congress expressing its conditions for trade agreements. Third, to the extent it empowers the president, it does so only to advance a core Republican principle: open markets.

The Case for Democrats

The only way to offset the pledge of retribution by the unions is through offsetting support from pro-trade groups. Admittedly this does not work in districts where union approval is essential to win a primary, but it can be convincing for many Democratic members on the fence.

During my first run for Congress opposing a four-term incumbent who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), I never really resented the fact that the Business Roundtable spent nearly $200,000 in support of my opponent (even though my campaign slogan was “Kennedy means business”). The fact that they did so should be encouraging to other Democrats who take courageous votes they know to be right.

Grass Roots Activation

Too many of the business organizations that are supportive of trade limit their grassroots activities to finding an executive in each Congressional District to call a member during a trade vote. That is of minimal value to the member. Members would be much more convinced if they had major employers in each district that were willing to effectively communicate with their employees about the importance of trade to their career and income growth. Ideally, they would have their employees contact their members of Congress directly.

Big Picture Pitch

To close the deal with hesitate members of either party, two quotes from the great Irish statesman Edmund Burke provide wise counsel. First, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” Second, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

It is essential for those promoting expanded trade to convince members of Congress that they do themselves and their constituents a disservice if they search for a reason to oppose TPA to obviate a tough, but courageous vote. Using chimeras from those whose animosities toward the president have been inaccurately directed towards opposing this essential bill or the fear of union reprisal as an excuse to oppose this legislation is the easy but wrong thing to do. The true rewards of public service should come to those who do the right and difficult thing instead.

In the end the central argument that must be advanced is that only a yes vote for TPA is consistent with a desire to return to economic vitality and to preserve American leadership.

 SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
Tags: TPA, Trade
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