Despite the advances of globalization, governments around the world continue to intervene in the flow of goods, services, people, and capital across international borders. This widespread intervention takes two basic forms: regulatory barriers aimed at discouraging certain types of commerce, and government subsidies aimed at encouraging others.
As a consequence, well-worn labels such as “internationalist” and “isolationist” do not fully capture the policy choices lawmakers face when deciding international commercial policy. The choice is not between engagement and isolation but between the free market and all forms of government intervention, including barriers, subsidies, and bailouts.
On the basis of their voting records in the 106th Congress, legislators can be classified into four categories: free traders, who oppose both trade barriers and subsidies; internationalists, who oppose barriers and support subsidies; isolationists, who support barriers and oppose subsidies; and interventionists, who support both barriers and subsidies.
An analysis of voting on 29 key votes in the 106th Congress confirms that the House leaned toward internationalism, opposing trade barriers on 63 percent of all votes cast and opposing subsidies on 22 percent of votes. Only 26 House members opposed barriers and subsidies on more than two-thirds of the votes they cast.
A near majority of House members, 212, voted as internationalists, 24 voted as isolationists, and 43 voted as interventionists. House Republicans were only marginally more inclined to vote against trade barriers than Democrats, but they were three times more likely to vote against trade subsidies.
In the Senate, a majority of 60 voted at least two-thirds of the time against trade barriers. (No votes were recorded on subsidies.) The typical Republican senator voted against barriers 71 percent of the time and the typical Democrat 61 percent.
When weighing policy toward the international economy, members of Congress should support a coherent program to liberalize trade and eliminate subsidies.