Americans use "dysfunctional" so often to describe their national government that the word has become a cliché.
Clichés should be avoided, where possible, but what other word best captures the crazy nature of congressional politics? That craziness was on display last week, with implications for Canada and nine other Pacific countries trying to negotiate a comprehensive free-trade and services deal that includes the United States.
Sometimes, U.S. politics pits Republicans against Democrats in Congress. On other occasions, Republicans fight among themselves when Tea Party radicals make life difficult for their party leadership, or what passes for leadership. The Obama administration butts heads with Republicans, who control the Senate and the House. Division upon division means paralysis and nastiness most of the time.
Now, however, Democrats in the House of Representatives are fighting their President, voting last week against a bill they liked in order to spike one they did not.
Now, please take a deep breath, because this won't be easy to follow. At issue was Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that allows the president to send a trade deal to Congress where it must be voted on Yes or No. No amendments, no horse-trading, no shilly-shallying. Without TPA, Congress would insist on hundreds of changes to satisfy interests in members' districts and states.
Other countries, knowing the U.S. system, insist on TPA. Without it, years of negotiating can be undone by the lobbying of special interests on Capitol Hill. President Barack Obama wanted TPA for the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. So did Republicans, his usual foes who support free trade. The President's own party balked. Organized labour got to Democrats, arguing that free-trade deals hurt ordinary workers.
They balked by refusing to support a bill to assist workers adversely affected by free trade, Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). Normally, Democrats and their union allies like government help for those who need it. The TAA provisions would help workers adversely affected by the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Fine, except that organized labour opposes the TPP and most trade deals, so House Democrats voted against the TAA, a bill they like, to stop the one they did not, the TPA, the two being linked in Congress.
Clear? It is true that the shortest distance in congressional politics is seldom a straight line, but this mess is like a circuit board with all the lines crossed. If the mess only concerned domestic U.S. affairs, Americans would just be tying themselves in knots. This time, the mess entangles Canada and nine other countries that have been negotiating for a long time and thought maybe the end was soon.
Before anyone sheds too many years for poor old Canada, the Harper government's reaction to the congressional mess surrounding Trade Promotion Authority will likely be public disappointment but private relief.
Canada, typically, has been negotiating for all the continued protection it could muster for the supply-managed sector of agriculture: poultry, eggs and milk. The Harper government was hoping to put off whatever concessions over supply-management would be required until after the Oct. 19 election, since at least some concessions would be required for Canada to join TPP.
If TPA had been granted by Congress – and additional efforts might be made to save it this week – the Obama administration would have pushed hard for a final text as soon as possible, knowing that it could get a trade deal through Congress courtesy of Republican support.
U.S. pressure would have forced the Harper government's hand to put up or shut up before the Canadian election. Under those circumstances, there was every chance the Harper government would have walked away from a deal, because everything the government now does is targeted on the election.
Supply-managed farmers in Quebec recently ran full-page newspaper ads with pitchforks symbolizing how they would threaten any government that imperilled their cartels. Ministers from Quebec and Ontario, where most of the farmers live, promised undying support for the supply-management cartels. Although their members are dwindling in number, the cartels still strike political fear in the hearts of elected officials in central Canada. Given a choice between upsetting the cartels and walking from a TPP, the government would almost certainly have walked.
Thanks to the mess in Washington, it looks now as if the TPP won't happen for some time yet. It might never happen if the alliance holds between Democrats beholden to organized labour that hates free-trade and Republicans who hate Mr. Obama. Politics, once again, makes for strange bedfellows.