Then again, maybe not.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Principles and Politics Align Against Trade

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

Barack Obama and House Republicans are still looking for a path forward on trade -- on Tuesday, the House agreed to put off a decision for a few weeks, giving lawmakers until the end of July to figure out a way to get to a majority. 

For a good explanation, see the nice item by Congress scholar Sarah Binder at the Monkey Cage. She explains the parliamentary situation and, more importantly, points out what’s at stake: The survival of a long-term logroll requiring Democrats to go along with a pro-trade agenda in exchange for aid to people harmed by trade deals. That agreement held up for decades. It may now be dying.


For some Democrats, Trade Adjustment Assistance -- the program to help those harmed by trade -- no longer deserves  their support, either because they don’t believe the trade-off is a good deal for their districts or because strong party groups, including most unions, reject the compromise.

What about Republicans? Some populist-minded Republicans might be less gung-ho about trade than most conservatives have been. A more serious issue, however, may be that some Tea Party types are reluctant to accept legislative trade-offs -- the “principled” conservative opposition to compromise per se. If that means that bills don’t pass, policies helpful to their constituents have to be abandoned, and they fall short of substantive goals they’ve adopted … well, that’s the price of sticking to principle. And thwarting the president may also be more important for some Republicans than achieving policy goals.

Indeed, late Tuesday, some House Republicans were floating a plan to move forward only with Trade Promotion Authority (the trade portion of the package) and just ignoring TAA. It wasn't clear whether this is some complex maneuver designed to eventually get both passed by some sort of sleight of hand. Or it may be that Republicans simply favor passing the part the House could pass with mainly Republican votes, ignoring that the votes aren't there in the Senate for TPA without TAA and that Obama would be unlikely to sign such a measure anyway. 

Notice that the parties' positions aren't parallel. Democrats are responding (whether it produces objectively good policy or not) to their party-aligned interest groups. Republicans aren't; they’re allowing ideology and partisanship to come first.  

The big question? Whether Republican-aligned interest groups will eventually revolt against this sort of behavior, which comes up on issue after issue, from the politicians they support.

  1. An argument familiar to those who are familiar with research from Dave Hopkins and Matt Grossman. But what I'm saying is a bit different, I think, from what they find. It's not that they're (primarily) conservative ideologues; it's that they won't cut deals even if those deals would advance conservative policies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at