A chance to prove bipartisanship is possible

January 10 marked the 70th anniversary of what became known as “the Speech Heard Round the World,” Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R) of Michigan extinguished his isolationist views and ignited a campaign for a more engaged, bipartisan U.S. foreign policy. Much has changed since Vandenberg’s time, but the essence of that message, a clarion call for bipartisanship at home and American leadership abroad, has never been more urgent.

With more than a half-century of Congressional experience between us, as Hill staff, members of the U.S. House and Senate, and Senate majority leaders, we have been deeply troubled as polarization and gridlock have risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. From the government shutdown in 2013 to the dismantling of the filibuster this past year, it’s clear that partisanship is less a seasonal cold than a chronic cancer eating away at our democracy.


Part of the problem is that despite all the calls for bipartisanship, there have been few legislative opportunities that could serve as a catalyst for sustained cooperation across party lines. A true catalyst for bipartisanship needs to be more than an easy, hollow endorsement. It needs to be the product of tough compromises, a substantive victory of the broader national interest over narrow parochial interests.

In fact, we have one such opportunity within our reach that has all the markings of a potential bipartisanship fire starter: trade.

Key leaders in the Republican Party, including House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouse Republicans need history lesson in battle over next leader Republicans jockey for top GOP spot on House Foreign Affairs Committee McMorris Rodgers won't run for GOP leadership MORE (Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham backs bill to protect Mueller Grassley defends acting AG against calls for recusal Former staffers push Congress for action on sexual harassment measure MORE (Ky.), have already made clear that they support major pillars of President Obama’s trade agenda. Leaders of the committees that oversee trade in Congress have also worked together in a bipartisan manner as recently as last year on key portions of the president’s agenda, an opportunity that exists once again in the year ahead.

Economically, there is no question that expanding trade would benefit the national interest over parochial interests. According to Professor Matthew Slaughter of the Tuck Business School, trade liberalization has raised America’s GDP by 10 percvent. In today’s terms, that’s more than $13,600 for every family in America, every year.

Trade’s contribution to the U.S. economy has been especially important in recent years. Over the last five years, the increase in U.S. exports has accounted for nearly a third of all the U.S. economic growth and, during the past four years, has supported 1.6 million new jobs. Better yet, those jobs typically pay somewhere between 13 and 18 percent more than jobs unrelated to exports. 

Despite these remarkable gains, trade has become an unsung hero at best. Last year, for example, a Pew poll found that only 20% of Americans believe that trade creates jobs. With the political aisle narrow enough for compromise and the economic benefits clear, the future of trade legislation hinges on bringing the public on board.

Skepticism about economic policy in general is understandable given the hardships faced by Americans during the last decade, but trade agreements in particular have too often taken the blame for what other global forces have wrought. In fact, trade policy is one of our best tools for addressing the challenges posed by technological change and globalization.

Take the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being negotiated between the United States and 11 other Asia-Pacific nations. This agreement would knock down barriers to U.S. exports in the world’s fastest growing region, establish a robust framework for the enforcement of intellectual property rights, and incorporate the highest standards for labor and environmental protection. We can be standard setters or standard takers in the 21st century global economy, and as China and others push ahead with their own agreements, there’s no question it’s in America’s interest to act now.

Another example is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would deepen our economic relationship with the European Union by better aligning our regulations and standards, thus serving as a template for the rest of the world to aspire to. Our economic partnership is already the world’s largest, encompassing $1 trillion in trade and $4 trillion in investment annually and supporting 13 million jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Together, these two agreements would enhance our ability to trade and invest freely and fairly with two thirds of the global economy.  It would also entice more foreign businesses to set up shop and invest in the United States, capitalizing on our large market, educated and innovative workforce, abundant cheap energy sources, and strong rule of law.   

And if that were not reason enough, moving forward with trade would also be a practical, concrete contribution to American leadership in global affairs. As Ambassador Michael FromanMichael B.G. FromanUS trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report Overnight Finance: Trump hits China on currency manipulation, countering Treasury | Trump taps two for Fed board | Tax deadline revives fight over GOP overhaul | Justices set to hear online sales tax case Froman joins Mastercard to oversee global business expansion MORE, the U.S. Trade Representative, has argued, the economic benefits of trade are strongly reinforced by strategic benefits such as strengthening our partners and allies, setting rules of the road for regions in flux, and promoting broad-based development.

Of course, there are a number of other issues that deserve bipartisan backing, including tax reform and immigration, among others. At present, however, none of these issues carries quite the same combination of political feasibility and economic opportunity as trade.

Promoting trade has been one of America’s longest bipartisan projects, beginning with the New Deal Congress, which gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt the first version of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).  TPA reaffirms Congress’s overall constitutional role in the development and oversight of U.S. trade policy, while enabling the president to negotiate trade agreements with our partners without fear that America may backslide on its international commitments.  From Eisenhower, to JFK, to Reagan, American presidents from both parties have received similar authority to increase our exports, create jobs at home, and exercise American leadership abroad.   It is time to update Congress’ role in trade policy by passing a modernized TPA bill.

As Senator Vandenberg once wrote, the purpose of bipartisanship in an increasingly complex world was actually quite simple: “to unite our official voice at the water’s edge so that America speaks with maximum authority.”

That’s precisely what trade does, and that’s why if Congress wants to revive bipartisanship, granting the President Trade Promotion Authority is precisely the place to start.

Daschle served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005, was majority leader from 2001 to 2003, and is the founder of the Daschle Group, a public policy advisory of Baker Donelson, a law and lobbying firm. Lott served in the Senate from 1989 to 2008, was Majority Leader in 2001 and is senior counsel at Squire Patton Boggs, a lobbying firm.