Are We Moving Toward a More Ideological Trade Policy Debate?

With John Kerry leaving the Senate to become Secretary of State, the seat that Kerry held on the Senate Finance Committee will be filled by Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.  This is an interesting committee assignment given that the Finance committee oversees all international trade issues in the Senate and that Senator Casey is one of the most protectionist members of Congress today.  But there is another reason why Casey’s assignment and his voting record are intriguing for the future of trade policy.

The Cato Institute has been keeping track of Congressional votes affecting trade freedom since 1999.  Every member of Congress has a trade vote profile that reveals their support for trade barriers and trade subsidies throughout their career.  The database reveals some interesting facts about members of the Finance Committee, swing states, and ideology.

Pennsylvania and Ohio are both states where neither Republicans nor Democrats hold a stable majority, and indeed there is one Republican senator and one Democratic senator from each.  All four of those senators are now on the Senate Finance Committee.  What’s especially interesting is that the two Democrats—Casey from Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown from Ohio—are solid Interventionists according to Cato’s trade scoring matrix, while the two Republicans—Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania and Rob Portman from Ohio—can both securely claim the (alas, much-rarer) Free Trader designation. 

The significant disparity in voting records for Senators with the exact same constituents goes against conventional trade-policy wisdom.  Trade barriers often have regional implications so that support for a particular policy will transcend ideology or party affiliation.  Polticians from Maine support shoe tariffs; politicians from Arkansas support catfish restrictions; politicians from Florida support sugar subsidies; politicians from South Dakota support beef restrictions; and so on. 

I find the possibility of a more ideological trade debate refreshing.  Maybe this phenomenon in Ohio and Pennsylvania says more about the electoral peculiarities of swing states than it does about trade policy—all four of these Senators are new comers to their office and were elected in mid-term elections that favored their party.  But if it signals a new trend in how the battle lines of trade policy will be drawn in Congress, the future looks bright.  I’d rather be governed by two principled ideologues with opposing ideas than by two centrists tied to special interests.