Next week, the House of Representatives likely will vote on a new free trade agreement with Peru, legislation that could prove controversial and place the Evergreen State's Democratic legislators in the spotlight. After all, while trade skepticism has been growing of late in the Democratic Party, Washington's progressives in Congress remain noticeably pro-free trade -- and that's something that could split them from many in their caucus as the debate over Peru and other pending trade agreements heats up.
What makes Washington's Democrats so free trade-friendly? The fact that the Evergreen State remains one of the most trade-dependent states in the nation. In 2006, only three states exported more goods and services than Washington (Texas, California and New York), and Washington exported more per capita ($8,300 worth of goods and services per person) than any other state in the country. In the state 670,000 jobs are linked to trade, in industries ranging from agriculture to aerospace, and Washington trades with just about everyone from Mexico to China. In sum, trade is a big deal in Washington -- and Evergreen State Democrats are keen to promote it.
So much so, in fact, that Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell voted for each of the trade deals between the U.S. and Oman, Chile and Singapore, as well as the more hotly debated Central American Free Trade Agreement and the 2002 Trade Act, which relates to trade with Andean nations. Washington's House Democrats also are regarded as very trade-friendly. For the years 2003-2004 (the most recent period of assessment available), the pro-free trade Cato Institute Center for Trade Policy Studies gave Reps. Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen, Norm Dicks and Adam Smith marks of 75 percent or better for their votes on trade issues.
For his part, Smith looks unlikely to be moving in a more trade-skeptical direction any time soon. He views trade as essential to a strong economy, and has already signaled his intention to support the deal with Peru and another with Panama. He also says he is "inclined" to support deals with Colombia and South Korea. Rep. Jim McDermott also looks unlikely to lose his sympathy for free trade, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee that on Wednesday approved putting the U.S.-Peru agreement to a full vote in the House, by a 39-0 margin. Larsen has similarly signaled he plans to support the Peru deal.
Big Washington employers such as Microsoft, which would benefit substantially from increased free trade (especially with countries such as South Korea), will no doubt applaud such positions. But Smith, McDermott and Larsen also work hard at keeping onside those concerned about the connection between increased free trade and job losses. All three strongly back legislation that passed the House this week that would extend benefits under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program to service-sector workers who they consider at risk of job losses as business goes global.
Still, their positions may rankle fellow Democrats, and many in the base of the party. Unions, including the powerful AFL-CIO, oppose the Peru deal, and a March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 54 percent of Democratic voters now view free trade agreements as harmful to the U.S. Moreover, with Sen. Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, taking a less free-trade friendly stance than her husband, the champion of NAFTA, it's clear that even more centrist Democrats are questioning the merits of increased free trade.
So, too, are some Republicans -- and that could give rise to a situation where Washington's trade-friendly progressives end up appearing more free-market and business-friendly even than some conservatives. While Rep. Dave Reichert has signaled his support for the Peru agreement and has been a consistent supporter of free trade, Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings opposed a recent six-month extension of the Andean Trade Preference Act. More recently, other members of his party have gone further, for example presidential candidate and California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who recently described some free trade agreements as "bad business deals."
That may be true for those living and working in the San Diego environs, which Hunter represents. But, as anyone in Seattle will tell you, Washington and California are two different worlds. Count on the D-Traders to remember it -- and not to allow their colleagues to forget that trade matters in the Evergreen State.