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IPR Fellow Matthew Green on President Obama, Congressional Democrats, and the TPP

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Same Song, New Verse: Once Again, A President is Taken Down by His Own (Minority) Party

Matthew Green

President Obama has frequently been stymied by Republicans in Congress. But his legislative agenda was halted last week not by the G.O.P. but by an unexpected group: members of his ownparty in the House of Representatives.

On Friday House Democrats voted nearly 3 to 1 against Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which gives aid to those who lose their jobs due to global competition. Democrats did this because a procedural rule required approval of the TAA for the passage of another program – Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – which would make it easier for trade agreements to be enacted by Congress.

Obama wanted TPA since it would ease the approval of a new trade agreement (known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership) being negotiated with several Pacific nations. But Democrats in the House did not support the agreement. And though they didn’t have the votes to defeat TPA, they could – and did – have the votes to kill the TPA indirectly by rejecting TAA (which Republicans are less enamored with).

Though TAA’s defeat was unexpected, it’s hardly unusual for minority parties in the House of Representatives to rebuff their own president. To give a few examples from history:

* In December 1985, Ronald Reagan’s tax reform bill came up against angry members of his own party in the Democratic-led House; nearly all of them voted against the rule for considering the bill, forcing its delay.

* In October 1990, three-fifths of House Republicans (led by minority whip Newt Gingrich) voted against a tax-raising budget bill negotiated between George H. W. Bush and congressional Democrats, leading to a partial government shutdown.

* When Bill Clinton vetoed legislation in 1995 limiting the power of shareholders to sue for fraud, nearly half of minority party Democrats in the House voted to successfully override his veto.

* In September 2008, two-thirds of House Republicans voted against an emergency economic bailout measure pushed for by George W. Bush, defeating the bill.

The willingness of minority parties to vote against a same-party White House on major legislative initiatives underscores how relatively unimportant presidential politics and agendas are to the minority party in the U.S. House. As I argue in my recent book, the House minority party cares a great deal about becoming a majority party, and to a lesser extent about shaping public policy and protecting its procedural rights. What it cares about least is loyalty to the presidential party.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that Presidents want to get things done, so they often negotiate and compromise first and foremost with the party that has agenda-setting power – the House majority party – even if that means developing legislation opposed by their own party in the chamber. Another reason is that the White House often takes its congressional party’s support for granted, which creates resentment among its members.

In the case of last week’s trade vote, both policy differences and personal pique appear to explain why Democrats went against the president. Obama, like past presidents of both parties, wants to develop favorable trade agreements with other countries, and majority Republicans do too. But progressives in Congress have become increasingly skeptical of free trade. Unions and liberal activists successfully convinced many House Democrats to not only oppose TPA but to vote strategically against TAA as well.

Some House Democrats also felt neglected by a White House that assumed their loyalty did not need careful cultivation. To these lawmakers, Obama’s speech before the Democratic Caucus and appearance at the annual congressional baseball game were little more than empty, last-minute gestures. Matt Fuller of Roll Call put it this way: “House Dems are the moody teenagers who were like, uh, just ‘cause you took us for ice cream doesn’t mean I forgive you for missing my bday.” Or as Keith Ellison (D-MN) tweeted, “Now Obama wants to talk?”

The TPA and TAA face an uncertain future. On the one hand, sometimes lawmakers need to vote against something before they can be convinced to vote for it. And in three of the four examples mentioned above, the president ultimately did get Congress to go along with (most of) what he wanted. On the other hand, the TAA lost badly on Friday, getting just 126 votes of the 215 that were needed for passage. Even Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi ultimately came out against it.

If Obama really wants the TPA, he’s going to have to work a lot harder at getting his party in the House to stand with him. By most accounts, it will not be an easy task. Perhaps Obama has learned the hard way that, even in the majoritarian House of Representatives, minority parties matter.