Ron Wyden’s Lonely Crusade

He’s bucking his party to help the president win free-trade agreements.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, listens to testimony during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, July 27, 2011.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, listens to testimony during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, July 27, 2011.

Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Disapproval trails Democratic Senator Ron Wyden these days. Over the past few months, he’s become the White House’s chief congressional ally on free trade, helping President Obama, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman push for a bill to streamline the passage of trade deals. That’s alienated liberal activists in Oregon, his home state, who show up at the senator’s public events flying a 30-foot-long blimp that says, “Ron Wyden: It’s up to you. Don’t betray us!”

In the Senate the shadows are cast by members of Wyden’s own caucus: Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, all of whom oppose giving the president “fast-track” trade-promotion authority, which limits Congress’s ability to modify trade agreements the administration negotiates with foreign governments. “The answer is not only no, but hell no,” Reid said in a Capitol Hill press conference on April 21. His advice to Wyden: “Slow this thing down a little bit.”

Wyden is even up against some key Republicans, including former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who was once in charge of negotiating such treaties under President George W. Bush. Now a senator from Ohio, he’s teamed up with Schumer to put fast track on a slower track by requiring treaties to include enforceable prohibitions against countries’ suppressing their currencies to gain a competitive advantage—a move Lew warned in a letter would “likely derail” a Pacific trade deal. Steelmakers and automakers favor the Portman amendment, which he says he’ll bring to the floor after it failed in committee. “It’s about how to say with a straight face to the people who we’re hired by, ‘This is going to be good for you,’ ” Portman told Roll Call.

The fast-track bill, which is expected to come to a vote in May, would let Congress instruct negotiators what it wants out of a trade deal, but then stop lawmakers from tacking on any amendments when presented with the treaty for approval. The White House argues that trading partners are reluctant to negotiate with the U.S. in the absence of fast-track authority for fear that complex and hard-won compromises will be unraveled on the floor of the House or Senate, where lawmakers get final say.

If Congress grants Obama fast-track authority, which expired in 2007, the U.S. has a good chance of concluding two big trade-liberalization treaties, one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic. Without fast track, both deals may fall apart. “I think the gate closes,” says Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “I don’t think you’ll go forward with any of these.”

Wyden says the fast-track bill may be the most difficult piece of legislation he’s worked on since he arrived in the Senate 19 years ago. “I think, frankly, the toughest economic issue for a Democrat is trade,” he says. Talking about it, he says, requires taking into account the sensitivities of other nations and of workers in the U.S. who worry about pressure from producers overseas. “This brings global economics front and center in a manner that no other issue does.”

The blimp
The blimp
Source: Tripp Jennings

He’s up against people who say trade deals could cost American jobs by flooding the U.S. with cheap imports. They say they don’t trust the safeguards foreign governments promise for labor and the environment. They say corporations have too much influence in treaty making. And they criticize what they see as excessive secrecy about treaties’ terms. Wyden says trade deals can help U.S. producers. “I say our markets are basically open,” Wyden says. “These other countries have big tariffs. So their markets are quite a bit more closed. We get more out of free trade than do the other guys. That’s the kind of argument that people respond to.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the U.S. has been working on since 2009, involves 12 countries—Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the U.S.—that account for almost 40 percent of global gross domestic product. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would ease investment flows between the U.S. and the European Union.

Some backers have begun to cite national security as a reason for supporting trade liberalization, saying it’s important for the U.S. to tighten ties with smaller trading partners at a time when China and Russia are testing America’s global leadership. “Passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a speech in April in Arizona.

One of fast track’s biggest champions in the House is Wisconsin Republican Representative Paul Ryan, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee. Ryan, who ran with Mitt Romney against the Obama-Biden ticket in 2012, made clear in an April 22 MSNBC appearance that he hasn’t suddenly gone soft on the president just because he thinks Obama is right on trade. “A blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then,” Ryan said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on April 28 that “putting America back in the trade business could be the biggest accomplishment of this Congress.”

Wyden scored a victory on April 22 when he got a majority of the Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee to join a 20-6 vote for fast track. That required some finagling. To win over Democrats, he gave waverers some but not all of what they asked for on issues such as transparency, currency manipulation, and “trade adjustment” assistance for people who lose their jobs because of increased imports from trade deals. Ryan’s Ways and Means Committee passed a similar version of presidential fast-track authority a day later by a vote of 25-13, but with only two Democrats’ votes.

Free trade was never Wyden’s signature issue. He’s better known for concerns like electronic surveillance, Internet taxation, and copyright law. He played Division I basketball at the University of California at Santa Barbara for two seasons before transferring to Stanford. After law school at the University of Oregon, he taught gerontology and founded the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers, an elderly-activism group. He was elected to the House at age 31 in 1980 and has been in the Senate since a special election in 1996.

Liberals are pressuring Wyden to back off. Jim Dean, chair of the liberal political action committee Democracy for America, says the group is looking for someone to challenge him in a Democratic primary in 2016. “The only real language that an incumbent understands is a threat to their incumbency,” says Dean, brother of the PAC’s founder, Howard Dean. Wyden says he’s not concerned. “Our side has a big education job to do,” he says. “I’m very much aware that our side takes more explaining.”

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