Portman’s trade dilemma: Stand with constituents or donors?

As the Senate prepared for its first big vote on a major new trade agreement, Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — US mulls Afghan evacuees' future Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — DOJ unveils new election hacking charges MORE (R-Ohio) faced a quandary. 

Should he listen to his big campaign donors—big corporations such Citigroup, General Electric, and Procter & Gamble—who support the agreement? All together, Portman received $541,000 over the last six years from executives and political action committees representing companies advocating for the trade agreement, according to an analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics. And that’s representing just companies who are on his top 20 list of donors. 

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And if he votes for the deal, how will he explain it to Ohio constituents who feel they’ve gotten a bad deal from trade agreements in the past—including those negotiated while Portman served as President George W. Bush’s U.S. trade representative? 

At issue is a vote on the “fast track” authority that President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHow a biased filibuster hurts Democrats more than Republicans Stephen Sondheim, legendary Broadway songwriter, dies at 91 With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one MORE wants in order to have more power to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with 11 Asian and Pacific Rim countries. “Fast track” would prevent Congress from amending the agreement before voting on it. 

Many Democrats and some Republicans oppose the trade agreement, arguing that it would shift jobs overseas and hurt American workers. Democrat and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who is running against Portman in 2016, has hit Portman hard on the topic, recently saying, “The people of Ohio are sick and tired of trade deals which result in jobs and the economy being injured… That’s why this is going to be a major issue between Sen. Portman and myself.” 

Portman himself has said before a any floor vote that he is not an “automatic yes” even though he voted yes in committee, because he wants the legislation to include measures to prevent other countries from manipulating foreign currency. In the end, Portman voted to move the deal forward in a procedural vote.  

Corporate America is lobbying heavily for the trade agreement including several of Portman’s top donors. One pro-trade coalition, Trade Benefits America, includes Portman’s third largest donor Citigroup, fifth largest donor General Electric, sixth largest donor Procter & Gamble, eighth largest donor JP Morgan Chase & Company, and eleventh largest donor Metlife Inc. All together, these donors contributed $540,579 through PACs and executives from 2009 to 2014 to Portman’s campaign committee and leadership PAC. 

The choice before Portman—between his constituents or the donors he’ll need to fund an incredibly expensive re-election campaign—sums up the problem with the way our elections work. Candidates have to weigh the needs of constituents against the desires of donors. Donors too often come out on top. 

We need a better system—one that gives everyday people an equal voice in politics. In the last Congress, Portman’s colleague, Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBiden faces new pressure from climate groups after Powell pick Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO MORE (D-Ohio), co-sponsored the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill that would allow candidates to run for office with a blend of small donations and public funds. By making regular people, not big donors, the center of a campaign, politicians will be able to focus on what’s best for their constituents. 

Until then, Portman and every other elected official will be forced to decide between their constituents and their funders and too often, we know what the outcome will be.

Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice, is a 20-year veteran of money in politics organizing and advocacy, has managed or consulted on six winning campaigns for state policy, and pioneered electoral and issue accountability campaigns on the issue.