This theory has a modicum of plausibility for three reasons: (i) these Chairmen clearly have a strong political stake in ensuring that the domestic auto producers and the United Autoworkers Union (in the case of Levin and Camp), and/or the American ranchers and meat producers (in the case of Baucus) get their way; (ii) they control the congressional committees that review and approve US trade measures, including FTA legislation; and (iii) Levin, Camp and Baucus released very hard-line statements immediately before and after the announcement of failure by Presidents Obama and Lee (with Camp's statement representing an apparent change of heart from an earlier stance back in September). And this theory, of course, has the benefit of casting President Obama as neither a raving protectionist nor a ruthless, union-pleasing politician, but instead as the unfortunate and unwitting victim of a last-minute change of heart by these powerful committee chairs.
But is this theory in any way grounded in political reality? Could these guys really use their power to derail the KORUS FTA if/when the White House finally submitted a deal to Congress next year? Baucus in particular certainly hasn't been shy about threatening such a move, stating at an August hearing: “No deal is better than a bad deal.... I don’t know why I should schedule a hearing on a Korean FTA that does not include all beef, all ages, all cuts.” And rumors have even swirled about scary committee staffers ominously present in the staff-level negotiations leading up to the Obama-Lee meeting. But is such a congressional power-play really a possibility?
In short, no and yes. But the latter answer might actually make the White House look even worse in this mess than we originally thought.
First, let's deal with the "no." Because the KORUS FTA was negotiated and signed back on June 30, 2007, it is subject to the now-expired provisions of Trade Promotion Authority - or "fast track." Under this law, 19 USC Sec. 2191, once the President submits a trade agreement's implementing legislation (essentially all of the changes to US law that the FTA would entail), the House and Senate must vote on the bill, without amendment, within 90 legislative days of the bill's submission. Here's wikipedia with a good summary of TPA's procedures and timelines (emphasis mine):
If the President transmits a trade agreement to Congress, then the majority leaders of the House and Senate or their designees must introduce the implementing bill submitted by the President on the first day on which their House is in session. (19 U.S.C. § 2191(c)(1).) Senators and Representatives may not amend the President’s bill, either in committee or in the Senate or House. (19 U.S.C. § 2191(d).) The committees to which the bill has been referred have 45 days after its introduction to report the bill, or be automatically discharged, and each House must vote within 15 days after the bill is reported or discharged. (19 U.S.C. § 2191(e)(1).) In the likely case that the bill is a revenue bill (as tariffs are revenues), the bill must originate in the House (see U.S. Const., art I, sec. 7), and after the Senate received the House-passed bill, the Finance Committee would have another 15 days to report the bill or be discharged, and then the Senate would have another 15 days to pass the bill. (19 U.S.C. § 2191(e)(2).) On the House and Senate floors, each Body can debate the bill for no more than 20 hours, and thus Senators cannot filibuster the bill and it will pass with a simple majority vote. (19 U.S.C. § 2191(f)-(g).) Thus the entire Congressional consideration could take no longer than 90 days.This summary makes clear that, US law (TPA) precludes the Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee or of the Senate Finance Committee from holding up the FTA legislation, thus keeping it from a floor vote. If they try (as Baucus apparently threatened above), the bill will be automatically discharged from committee and scheduled for a floor vote (which they also can't stop, or even amend). Thus, it is legally impossible for any single member of Congress, no matter what committee he chairs, to derail the KORUS FTA.
However, that's not the end of the story, and it brings us to the "yes" part of my Kremlinology. As we unfortunately learned back in 2008, the House or Senate can derail an FTA by passing (by majority vote in only that chamber) a resolution to dismantle TPA's timelines, just as the Pelosi-led House did in order to hide members from the up-or-down vote on the US-Colombia FTA which President Bush had submitted to Congress earlier that year. But this still required a majority of House members to pull off, and thus Levin/Camp or Baucus would have to rally the support of 215 other members of the House or 50 other Senators in order to pass this cowardly resolution. On the House side, it seems extremely unlikely that Camp could pull off such a move next year because the new House GOP leadership (plus a few brave Democrats) has routinely called for the FTA's passage as-is. On the Senate side, Baucus might be able to garner support, but only if he can rally almost all Senate Democrats (plus maybe a couple anti-trade Republicans). But - and here's the kicker - for either scenario to be even remotely possible, the White House would have to absolutely refuse to confront the FTA's congressional opposition and defend the deal (and free trade more generally) to the American people. (Recall that the President - and he alone - submits the FTA to Congress, and he thus controls the national conversation on KORUS.)
So this overly-lengthy analysis leads us to only two conclusions:
(1) Due to the legal restrictions of TPA, this theory about unbearable congressional pressure is absolute nonsense. If so, we're back to blaming the White House - and only the White House - for a policy and diplomatic mistake of monumental proportions and/or some seriously ruthless political strategery; or
(2) Due to the tiny little (man-made) loophole in TPA, this theory about unbearable congressional pressure is true. If so, the White House has apparently made a calculated political decision that it will not devote even an iota of political capital to fighting Congress for the KORUS FTA or to publicly defending free trade in 2011.
But does scenario 2 really make you feel any better about last week's collapse?
I didn't think so.