Friday, October 19, 2012

How Does Your Congressman or Senator Measure Up on Trade and Subsidies?

As readers of this blog know, I frequently rely on the Cato Institute's free trade ratings to quickly note a Congressman's or Senator's voting record on free trade and subsidies, and with the November elections only a few weeks away (thank goodness), there's no better time than now to review the performance of our elected officials.  Cato released the latest update of its invaluable, easily-searchable trade ratings today, and trade policy analyst Bill Watson blogged on some of their topline findings (none of which should come as a surprise to those of us who follow this stuff on a regular basis):
The site offers excellent insight into the positions and ideologies of our elected officials, and I encourage you to investigate it at your leisure. As a primer, I would like to point out two important observations of my own in this post.

First, free trade is not a partisan issue. It is true that Free Traders tend to be Republicans and Interventionists tend to be Democrats, but the bulk of both parties are somewhere else on the graph and there is no obvious partisan correlation. For example, John Boehner (R-OH) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have fairly similar scores that place them between Interventionist and Internationalist. There are plenty of Democrats who vote against trade barriers and plenty of Republicans who vote in favor of subsidies. It’s often regional interest rather than partisan affiliation that affects voting patterns, as demonstrated by Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) support for sugar subsidies.

Second, senators from the same state can have widely different approaches to trade, especially in swing states. Three large swing states in the current presidential election have a Democratic senator elected in the 2006 midterm election and a Republican senator elected in the 2010 midterm election. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Roy Blunt (R-MO) have earned high marks so far since joining the Senate in 2011. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) have established themselves as solid Interventionists. Brown and Casey are among the most devout protectionists in Congress today.

The votes database suggests the hypothesis that giving lip service to free trade while advocating protectionism to boost manufacturing is a middle-of-the-road position for swing state voters that candidates are wise to adopt. But it also says that free trade can win elections in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Each of these points is important, and it's one of the reasons why I've repeatedly said that an elected official's trade/subsidy record, rather than his/her party or rhetoric, is an excellent guide as to whether he or she is a principled politician.  As I noted in a somewhat-recent IBD oped:
A candidate's stance on trade is predictive of whether he, once elected, will put facts and principle before politics and self-interest. Politicians who reject protectionism turn down eager corporate and union campaign donations from unseemly rent-seekers trying to thwart international competition at the expense of American families and companies.

They ignore demagogic attacks on their patriotism. And they openly support policies which, despite their overwhelming economic and historical support, are met with public hostility or disinterest and an unethical opposition willing to take full advantage thereof.

On the other hand, politicians who peddle protectionism are either ignorant of history and economics or are willing to discard their conservative ideals and prey on voter fears for short-term political advantage.
Such principle transcends partisan identity or local politics, and there's no better example of this than the comparison of the stellar free trade record of Tea Party champion Sen. Jim Demint (R-SC) with the pretty bad record of his Palmetto State GOP colleague Sen. Lindsay Graham.  (Indeed, Graham regularly partners with also-bad Sen. Chuck Schumer to sponsor protectionist China currency legislation.)  It's also quite telling that a lot of the Tea Party "radicals" like DeMint, Toomey, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and several freshmen House Republicans have great trade/subsidy records.  These folks clearly get it.

Hopefully they'll be joined by even more principled colleagues in 2013.

No comments: